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Driven to engineer SA’s aerospace future

UKZN’s Aerospace Systems Research Group (ASReG) in the School of Engineering is developing the talent of the next generation of rocket scientists to propel South Africa’s space industry forward, and the young engineers moving through its ranks are making their own dreams, and those of South Africa’s burgeoning space engineering industry, a reality through innovative research, hard work and a passion for the skies.

Vulinhlanhla Mchunu
Vulinhlanhla Mchunu

One of these individuals is Vulinhlanhla Mchunu who hails from the small, rural town of Maphumulo in north-west KwaZulu-Natal. As a Grade 9 pupil, while listening to a radio feature on the shortage of engineers in South Africa, Mchunu’s career path was instantly set. Selecting mathematical, scientific and engineering-oriented subjects from Grade 10 in his drive to be an engineer, he first completed a diploma in Civil Engineering at Mangosuthu University of Technology before enrolling for his BSc in Mechanical Engineering at UKZN. He described the subject as the ‘mother of engineering’ as it incorporates aspects of multiple engineering fields.

His undergraduate years were marked by accomplishments. He achieved Dean’s Commendations for six of his eight semesters of study and, thanks to serious effort and determination, graduated cum laude. During his undergraduate studies, a conversation with Dr Jean Pitot piqued his interest in the work being done in the ASReG to develop sounding rockets to address Africa's launch needs; with no current launch satellite capability, Africa relies on expensive foreign launch services, necessitating programmes like those under way in the ASReG to bridge that gap.

Mchunu decided to pursue his Master of Science in Engineering under Pitot’s supervision. Now in his second year of research and supported by the Department of Science and Innovation and a bursary from the South African National Space Agency (SANSA), he has been working on the design of propellant tanks and airframe components for a liquid propellant suborbital rocket that the ASReG hopes to build.

The complex subject is perceived to be difficult and inaccessible, said Mchunu, because it is mathematically intensive, but for him, the fact that rocketry covers almost all engineering concepts or principles has provided a unique opportunity to apply the skills he has learnt as an engineer.

"Engineering consistently requires one to have answers or solutions to every problem, which often does not have mathematical solutions," he said.

He advises learners seeking to follow in his footsteps to study for understanding rather than just passing, because this yields the benefit of ending up in a field like rocket science that enables the use of science for tangible, physical solutions.

The sacrifices made to get to the point he has reached in his academic career, and the focus, hard work and consistent determination he has had to apply have all been worth it, says Mchunu. His parents are proud of his achievements while for him, the highlight of his work has been the strong footing it has provided to contribute to the growth of South Africa’s nascent aerospace industry.

He credited the ASReG, particularly Professor Mike Brooks, Dr Jean Pitot and Professor Glen Snedden, for the exposure to this fascinating field and the strong professional relationships they cultivate with their students, and said that the ASReG is unique in the research opportunities it provides in rocket science and in the development of sounding rockets.

"ASReG is doing great work for the country, inspiring students to pursue post-graduate studies and generating interest in rocket propulsion, flight dynamics and airframe design in South Africa by providing students with exposure to something they may be interested in but would otherwise not have heard of," said Mchunu.

Words: Christine Cuénod

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