‘As a child I dreamt of becoming involved in space exploration’ – Dr Japie van Zyl
As a child in Namibia Dr Jakob (Japie) van Zyl used to stare at the stars and wonder if somewhere out there someone else was doing the same.
Even then Dr Van Zyl, extraordinary professor at Stellenbosch University and Associate Director: Project Formulation and Strategy at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), dreamt of becoming involved in space exploration.
That’s why the Curiosity rover’s mission to Mars means so much to him.
“Like most people I’m fascinated by the question about whether there is life out there. I regard this project as the next logical step to find out whether there is, in fact, the possibility that life on Mars could have been supported.”
The Curiosity rover landed successfully on Mars on Monday, 6 August.
“It was incredible. A mixture of relief and an overwhelming feeling of pride. Thousands of people have worked for years to make this unbelievable achievement possible and it was great to see everyone cheer and laugh. Amazing!” he wrote in an email on Tuesday.
Dr Van Zyl wasn’t directly involved with the project, but he still played an important part.
“My position as Associate Director of JPL means that I link up with all of JPL’s projects. I concentrate on what we will do in the future, for example future Mars projects and missions to Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons. My background is in radar and I assisted the project in designing the radar system that was used to land the Curiosity rover on Mars.”
The first plans for this mission were formulated ten years ago.
“The serious work on the project started in 2004 after we landed the previous robots on Mars. The aim was to launch in 2009, but we weren’t ready in time; this robot was just too sophisticated to develop in such a short time.
“We expect to receive the first images from the robot within the next few days. But the real work will probably only start in a week or two. We’ll want to ensure that everything on the Curiosity rover is fine before we start driving around.”
Dr Van Zyl believes this mission will contribute a lot to science and space exploration.
“If we are lucky enough to find signs of life on Mars it will be an unbelievable discovery, of course. But even if we don’t find any signs of life, we have still achieved amazing success. This is the first time that we have landed such a big load on another planet. This is the first step in the process of taking humans to Mars one day. And if we want to transport people to Mars, we’ll have to be able to land bigger capsules than this one.”
He believes Stellenbosch University will also benefit from this project.
“The biggest reason for attempting missions like these, is to learn. We need to learn how to land, learn about the history of Mars, etc. SU, just like Caltech (California Institute of Technology) where I teach, will benefit from these missions in terms of the knowledge we will be able to transfer to the next generation of engineers and physicists.”
But it isn’t only staff and students at tertiary institutions who are interested in this mission. Dr Van Zyl has already received many e-mails from learners in South African and Namibia who say that they want to become engineers. The youngest of these letter writers is eight years old.
“There aren’t many opportunities for nerds to become heroes. Hopefully we have inspired learners all across the world.”
His message to young people is to never let anything stand in their way.
“I always say that I went to a small school. We were only 25 learners in my matric class. To achieve success, you need to work hard. It’s not where you come from but rather what you do, that counts.”
Dr Van Zyl has dreamt of becoming involved in space exploration since he was a young boy.
“I’m lucky that my mother always encouraged me to follow my dream and when she passed away my mother-in-law took over. My future father-in-law took me aside when I was in matric and promised to pay for my studies if I couldn’t get a bursary. Just as long as I didn’t tell his daughter about our agreement!
“And my wife has supported me since we were in school. She is my inspiration to give back as much as possible to Africa, where we come from.”
Dr Van Zyl is proud to be a Matie and to be connected to SU (he is an extraordinary professor in the Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering).
“I feel compelled to advertise that I come from Stellenbosch. Go Maties!” he said.