outh Africa is renowned for its untamed wilderness, vibrant culture, and historical legends. Yet, in recent years, a new name shimmered in its starlit skies — Mandla Maseko. This audacious young man’s aspirations were not confined to the land he hailed from; they soared beyond our atmosphere, aiming for the very stars themselves.
In 2013, the world watched in astonishment as Maseko, a 25-year-old from Soshangave township near Pretoria, achieved something most can only dream of. He triumphed over a staggering one million hopefuls from 75 countries to clinch a coveted spot among the 23 individuals chosen for a sub-orbital journey aboard the Lynx Mark II spaceship. This venture, if it had materialised in 2015 as intended, would have made Maseko the inaugural black African to break through Earth’s atmospheric confines.
The remarkable alignment of the universe was evident when the announcement of Maseko’s space journey came mere hours after the world grieved the demise of a South African icon, Nelson Mandela. To Maseko, this wasn’t mere coincidence but a symbolic passing of the baton, where he imagined Mandela telling him to continue the race and become the “first black South African in space.”
But before his name graced international headlines, Maseko’s roots were firmly grounded in a humble setting. Born to a school cleaner and an auto tool maker, Maseko’s home was filled with love, dreams, and a palpable belief in his destiny. This belief was echoed strongly by his mother who felt she was “giving birth to a star.”
His early ambitions were equally lofty. While Neil Armstrong’s legendary step on the moon in 1969 had already inspired millions, Maseko aimed to emulate and elevate this feat. His dream: to leave the imprint of his foot and the South African flag on the lunar surface. He envisaged delivering a memorable line in space, akin to Armstrong’s timeless words.
However, aspirations often come with obstacles. Maseko’s initial pursuit of aeronautical engineering pivoted to civil engineering due to monetary challenges. This shift, though disheartening, didn’t deter him. His indomitable spirit found another avenue to the stars: a unique competition that required participants to submit a photo of themselves leaping off a height. This challenge, though seemingly simple, was a turning point in Maseko’s life. After a comedic attempt to leap from his home’s roof was foiled by his protective mother, he settled for a jump off a shorter wall, a moment captured on a mobile phone that would change his destiny.
This photograph, amalgamated with his achievements in the subsequent stringent assessments by AXE Apollo Space Academy, cemented his place among the stars. Further honing his skills, Maseko trained at the Kennedy Space Academy in Florida, undergoing intensive training regimes like skydiving and G-force simulations. A serendipitous encounter with the legendary Buzz Aldrin there only added to Maseko’s burgeoning excitement.
Back in South Africa, Maseko’s impending journey enthralled the nation. The ‘space fever’ was so pervasive that his younger sister Mantombi was frequently pestered with questions about space, prompting her poetic reply: “Space is a very special place.”
Yet, as the adage goes, ‘Man proposes, God disposes.’ The eagerly awaited 2015 space odyssey never took flight. With the postponement of the voyage, Maseko redirected his energies. Training as a private pilot, serving with distinction in the South African National Defence Force (SANDF), and engaging in community initiatives kept his spirit buoyant.
However, tragedy struck in 2019. The 30-year-old ‘Afronaut’ met with a fatal bike accident, extinguishing a dream that promised to inspire millions. His legacy, though, is undying. As he once said in a BBC interview, it’s not about one’s background but their perseverance and determination that shapes their destiny.
In essence, Mandla Maseko’s journey, though tragically cut short, serves as an eternal beacon of hope, determination, and the limitless potential that resides within us all.