How this SA rocket scientist went from blowing up his mom’s kitchen to getting a planet named after him

Mildred Europa Taylor June 15, 2021
Siyabulela Xuza. Image via Rising Africa

Siyabulela Xuza blew up his mother’s kitchen in Mthatha in the Eastern Cape due to his fascination with chemicals. That incident however could not stop him from developing a record-breaking rocket and creating safer, more energy-efficient rocket fuel.

In recognition of his innovation in homemade rocket fuel, the young South African scientist would have a minor planet named after him by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration-affiliated Massachusetts Institute of Technology Lincoln Laboratory.

The minor planet in the main asteroid belt near Jupiter was discovered in 2000 and renamed “23182 Siyaxuza” in recognition of Xuza’s achievements. Today, he has not only had a planet named after him, but he is an energy-engineering graduate from Harvard University who is “developing new energy technologies to power Africa and save the planet.”

Born in Mthatha in 1989, Xuza’s passion for science began when he saw a small aeroplane for the first time dropping political pamphlets from the air in his community. Other boys chased after the papers but he was fascinated by the plane and hoped to one day travel to places beyond Earth’s orbit, TimesLIVE reported.

As time went on, his wish was to get to the largest planet in the solar system. He believed that to get there, he would need a special kind of rocket fuel, thus, he started experimenting with basic materials.

Xuza began experimenting with rocket fuels in his mother’s kitchen. This later turned into a major science project that resulted in him developing a cheaper and safer rocket fuel, leading to the successful launch of a real home-built rocket, The Phoenix. His rocket achieved a final height of over a kilometer and earned him the junior South African amateur high-powered altitude record, according to a report by The Presidency, Republic of South Africa.

“The rocket was propelled by Xuza’s own invention: a cheaper, safer type of rocket fuel, which became the subject of a project titled “African Space: Fuelling Africa’s quest to space”,” the report added.

For his science project, he won gold at the National Science Expo and the Dr Derek Gray Memorial Award for the most prestigious project in South Africa. This earned him an invitation to the International Youth Science Fair in Sweden in 2006, where he presented his project to the King and Queen of Sweden and attended a Nobel Prize ceremony in Stockholm.

Xuza has won several local and international science competitions for his discoveries. His invitation to the International Youth Science Fair in Sweden was then his best prize, he told the Anglo American Open Scholarship Panel in 2008.

The Anglo American Open Scholarship offered not only basic university fees but also a generous living allowance plus an overseas trip, according to Clem Sunter, a world-renowned scenario planner who was chairperson of the Scholarship at the time.

Sunter said Xuza was one of the brightest students he and his team interviewed in 2008. “The first question we put to him, as we did to all other candidates, was: ‘What degree have you chosen and why?’”

Xuza’s response was as follows: “I’ve chosen Chemical Engineering at the University of Cape Town. The reason is that I developed a fascination for chemicals when I was 12 years old. I mixed them in my mother’s kitchen and caused minor explosions to her utter dismay.

“Then I decided to concentrate on a particular project. It was to create an energy-intensive fuel which was safer and more effective than the stuff Nasa [National Aeronautics and Space Administration] uses to propel its rockets into outer space.

“I managed to build a rocket which broke the South African Amateur Altitude Record. I then entered the Eskom National Science Expo and won gold, as well as the Dr Derek Gray Memorial Award for the most prestigious project in South Africa.

“The best prize, however, was to be invited to the International Youth Science Fair in Sweden…The consequence of that was to be entered into the world’s biggest student science event at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair in the US. I won two top awards, but what really made my day was that the Nasa-affiliated Lincoln Laboratory was so impressed by my achievement that they named a minor planet after me!”

Xuza earned the scholarship, but in three months, he was awarded another scholarship to go to Harvard University.

He has since achieved a lot. In 2010, the young scientist was elected as a fellow of the African Leadership Network, which aims to shape Africa’s future. That same year, he spoke at the African Union (AU) in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia on creating prosperity for Africa. In 2011, he became a fellow of the Kairos Society, a global network of top students and global leaders who are using innovation and entrepreneurship to solve some of the world’s challenges.

He got an invitation to the United Nations and the New York Stock Exchange to “offer strategies for solving the world’s energy crisis.” Recently, Xuza became the youngest member of the AU-affiliated Africa 2.0 Energy Advisory Panel and was invited to Mombasa, Kenya, to help in finding sustainable solutions to Africa’s social and economic problems.

At the moment, the young energy-engineering expert with a passion for clean affordable energy owns an investment company, Galactic Energy Ventures, which caters to the energy needs of emerging markets.

Being in his early 30s, he is definitely excited about his amazing contribution to scientific innovation. “I may not be able to predict what the future holds. But I am excited at how my engineering education will enable me to achieve my aspirations for Africa.

“My mother told me that even if a planet is named after you…you should always remain down to earth.”

Last Edited by:Mildred Europa Taylor Updated: June 15, 2021


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