School of Engineering


Participants at the Girls fly programme in Africa (GFPA) camp in Gauteng.

Aerospace Systems Research Group Piques Young Women’s Interest in Space Technology

UKZN’s Aerospace Systems Research Group (ASReG) in the Discipline of Mechanical Engineering recently promoted careers in aerospace technology to young women at an Aviation and Space Technology Camp hosted by the Girls fly programme in Africa (GFPA).

The six-day event – held at the Grand Central Airport in Gauteng for rural or disadvantaged learners from Gauteng, Mpumalanga and Limpopo – was attended by 40 learners and mentors. The GFPA is planning two further camps in 2022 that will open the programme to other provinces.

The GFPA programme, founded by South Africa’s first Black female helicopter pilot, Ms Refilwe Ledwaba, developed these innovative camp programmes in 2013 as part of the effort to encourage increased female participation in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) careers to close the gender-based income and employment gap between men and women in these fields.

The camp included space technology activities at the South African National Space Agency, leadership and team building, design thinking challenges, drone demonstrations and data analytics, activities to promote cultural understanding, airport tours and more.

At the event, Mr Thabang Mdhluli, ASReG postgraduate student completing his master’s degree on gelled rocket propellants, delivered a presentation on the group’s research activities in aerospace propulsion research.

Supported by the Department of Science and Innovation (DSI), ASReG is driving the development of satellite launch vehicle technologies for Africa.

In the presentation, Mdhluli described different kinds of rockets and their design, and how UKZN builds and tests the vehicles. The presentation included video footage of ASReG’s various test campaigns.

Following the presentation, which generated considerable interest, Mdhluli engaged with participants as they posed questions about rocketry and aerospace engineering.

Speaking of ASReG’s work, co-founder Professor Michael Brooks emphasised the importance of investing in the education of young engineers to meet national objectives of advancing South Africa’s space engineering capabilities.

ASReG is supported by the Department of Science and Innovation (DSI) in their quest to develop satellite launch vehicle technologies for Africa and to train the next generation of engineers to meet this goal. The group has an active outreach programme designed to bring the story of rocketry and STEM to the public.

‘ASReG is delighted to have participated in this technology camp and to showcase our activities,’ said Brooks.

‘We want to see the next generation of bright young South Africans choosing engineering careers, and specifically careers in mechanical and aerospace engineering, and we hope that our engagement with the participants in the space camp inspires them to become engineers and scientists and to build South Africa’s space engineering economy.’

He emphasised that initiatives like UKZN’s Space Propulsion Programme make careers in space and rocket technology attainable for young South Africans, with cutting-edge research bringing young engineers into the fold where they can investigate rocket propulsion (engine design), airframes, turbomachinery, and flight dynamics.

‘Space technology has rapidly become integrated into most aspects of our lives, from satellite TV, to the GPS capabilities in cell phones, to advances in telemedicine, environmental monitoring and disaster management – all of these things and more are made possible by the carrier rockets that place satellites in orbit,’ said Brooks.

‘It all starts with the rocket!’

‘The support we received from you and the ASReG was instrumental in enabling us to host this year’s first camp,’ said GFPA Project Officer Ms Malebo Modise.

‘We have been receiving wonderful feedback from the schools and learners regarding the camp and it is through your sponsorship and support that we were able to highlight the importance of education, and encourage learners to focus on their studies.’

Words: Christine Cuénod

Photograph: Supplied