Starstruck Jeanie aims to be SA's first cosmonaut
When Jeanie van der Merwe was 11, she gave a presentation to her Grade 4 class about her hero, Mark Shuttleworth. Two years earlier, in 2002, the tech entrepreneur from Cape Town had become "the first African in space" after spending $20-million of his fortune on an eight-day tourist trip to the International Space Station.Van der Merwe, now 23, is determined to be the second African in space and is doing an aerospace engineering course at the Moscow Aviation Institute.It was a full-circle moment for her when she read a story about Shuttleworth during Russian language lessons."I was reading this story about my hero who had inspired me to be here," she told the Sunday Times this week. "He had such a passion and he never gave up on that and he went to space."Van der Merwe is now three years into a journey that will probably take 15 more, as cosmonauts are at least master's degree holders with plenty of engineering work experience under their belts."I don't know if I loved anything else before aircraft, technology and science," said Van der Merwe, who used to sit on her father's shoulders as he pointed out aircraft above their Midrand garden."As soon as I was outside at night, I would look at the stars and imagine and picture myself up there just exploring further than the eye can see."Van der Merwe made the leap to Moscow in 2013 with the support of her family and friends. Although her university fees for the first year were comparable to her fees at Tuks, where she had been studying for two years, her family and church raised funds for other costs such as air fares and living expenses.Will Van der Merwe become South Africa's first true-blue cosmonaut? There are some contenders.In 2013 Mandla Maseko, who calls himself the Afronaut, won a competition for an hour-long space trip. Although he was reportedly supposed to blast off last year, a date has yet to be announced, his spokesman said.In February, scientist Adriana Marais became one of 100 candidates worldwide shortlisted for the Mars One project, which aims to establish a human settlement on the red planet. In September, 24 candidates will be chosen for one-way tickets beginning in 2026.Van der Merwe, however, specifically dreams of working on the International Space Station, where she will be able to "explore science in a vacuum"."Since I love science, doing experiments and building things, why not do it in space instead of on Earth, at a desk or in a lab?" she said.She knows better than most people how difficult it will be to make her dream come true. "I don't know how people have not laughed at me, because it is a bit of a crazy thought," she said.But being in Russia, a country that prides itself on its space programme, and at an institution where rocket parts lie around in classrooms, helps keep her going."There's no way I can give up. I breathe space."