The National Astrophysics and Space Science Programme (NASSP) is a multi-institutional initiative aimed at producing MSc graduates in areas pertaining to astronomy, astrophysics and space science. The NASSP model is based on the fact that expertise in these cognate areas is spread thinly and unevenly in academic departments across South Africa and that a national coordinated skills development strategy is necessary to address the issue. NASSP positions itself as a Human Capital Development (HCD) project with two tiers of transformation as focal outcomes. The first tier addresses the overall landscape by locating the contact teaching of coursework components of the Honours and MSc degrees at institutions (nodes) where there are presently concentrations of expertise as well as where there is the necessary infrastructural support; thereafter MSc and PhD students are encouraged to enroll at as many institutions as possible to facilitate the strengthening of research capacity across the country. The node for contact curriculum delivery has been UCT but the need for expansion sees the addition of nodes at University of KwaZulu-Natal and North-West University (Potchefstroom).
The second tier of transformation is a targeted focus on redress by recruiting and retaining students from Historically Disadvantaged Institutions via the Astronomy Winter School and the Postgraduate Bridging Programme (PGBP). These needs arise from the recognition that the status quo with regard to equity is particularly unsatisfactory with regard to Black graduates. The Programme Mission is to empower South African and African students to embark upon post-graduate studies in astrophysics and space physics by providing them with the necessary skills, knowledge and inspiration. By harnessing national expertise and resources and taking advantage of global networks, NASSP is committed to producing graduates whose qualifications are internationally competitive and locally applicable. The programme will promote diversity and transformation while growing the next generation of graduate astronomers and space scientists who can enter and contribute to the South African work force, where physics and mathematical skills and a command of research methods will be advantageous.
To create human capacity in astronomy and space physics, particularly in under-represented communities, and to build a cohort of scientists at the core of an international network of African astronomers, space physicists and citizens, who are bonded by the common experience of schooling, interlinked both professionally and personally and able to make a major contribution to the transformation of society.
The primary goal of NASSP is to generate Masters graduates who have the appropriate skills either to continue with PhD studies in astrophysics and the space physics, or to take up employment in industry or commerce. Graduates will have access to world-class research instrumentation through, e.g., SANSA labs, SANAEIV, SALT, HESS, MeerKAT and the SKA, and a capacity to participate in internationally-connected front-line activities. The ultimate outcomes are potentially very far reaching and include:
Increased research capacity.
An enhancement of university teaching capacity.
A reduction of the brain-drain as real opportunities emerge to participate in international science from within the country.
The production of indigenous role models most of whose training is local, but who are acknowledged as part of an international community.
A pool of local scientific and technical talent for industry and commerce.
A capacity to engage in scientific public relations.
An impact on math and science school level education.
NASSP arose as part of the strategic plan for skills development of the astronomy National Facilities in 2000/1 in close consultation with the NRF. The High Energy Stereoscopic System (HESS), in Namibia, was about to start operations, construction of the Southern African Large Telescope (SALT) was about to begin and consideration was being given to submit a proposal to host a large radio astronomy project, the Square Kilometre Array (SKA). It was clear at this stage that the small number of South African astronomers, and particularly the paucity of black South African astronomers, was the biggest threat to the future of astronomy in this country.
The close links of astronomy with space physics allowed a good working partnership to be established between the two communities who faced similar challenges in recruitment and training. Astrophysics and cosmology have been among South Africa’s strengths for many decades. In 2000 there was a concentration of expertise in Cape Town, mainly at the South African Astronomical Observatory (SAAO) and UCT, but there were other relatively small pockets of excellence around the country. The rapidly developing environment was calling for the nurturing of appropriate skills through post-graduate training in astronomy and related topics within a multi-wavelength modality. This required national cooperation, rather than competition amongst Institutions, to realise this objective. The strong interest and early involvement of the USA's National Society of Black Physicists (NSBP) offered the exciting potential of developing early and strong links between the next generation of African astronomers and the well-resourced USA community.
The first NASSP steering committee comprised of the following members:
• Dr Catherine Cress (University of Western Cape)
• Prof Tony Fairall (University Cape Town)
• Dr Mike Gaylard (Hartebeesthoek Radio Astronomy Observatory)
• Prof Justin Jonas (Rhodes University)
• Prof Thebe Medupe (University of North West)
• Prof Pieter Meintjes (University of Freestate)
• Prof Christo Raubenheimer (University of North West)
• Prof Dave Walker (University Natal)
• Prof Patricia Whitelock (South African Astronomical Observatory)