When Betty Ntlhe saw a rocket thundering into the sky carrying a satellite into space on TV, it was more than just a cool event. The sight inspired her to pursue a career in the satellite industry, culminating in her current role as a satellite operations technician at the South African National Space Agency (SANSA). After seeing several of these televised launches, Ntlhe says she began asking questions about the space industry, and it was that quest that brought her to SANSA.
“At some point, I dreamed of becoming an astronaut myself. It was then when I realized that the space industry is very broad, with many disciplines within the industry, and I learned that I can study engineering for me to take part,” she says.
Ntlhe’s responsibilities at SANSA include the operation, maintenance and monitoring of Radio Frequency (RF) and electronic equipment associated with satellite data acquisition and operations. She now plays an integral role in the very thing she used to watch on TV by participating in Tracking Telemetry and Command (TT&C) operations for satellites and launch vehicles, including Launch and Early Orbit Operations (LEOP) for other space agencies and satellite operators.
Having realized her dream, Ntlhe says she became aware of how few women are involved in the industry. Rather than getting discouraged, she doubled down on becoming her best. “Being given the opportunity to participate in launch support, while at times being the only female, has influenced my growth in this stream in a very positive manner. I now further my studies so that I can learn more about RF and microwave principles. My aim is to learn more and grow further in the satellite industry,” she adds.
Ntlhe says there is a lot of excitement about the space industry in South Africa right now mainly because people are becoming more aware of what the industry does and the opportunities it presents. Furthermore, people have learned of ways satellites contribute to South Africa, which cultivates a desire to know more. “If more and more technological breakthroughs can be made, the space program can change people’s lifestyles, raise living standards and boost economic developments more, as it has happened in history each time humans explored unknown territories. The exponential growth of scientific knowledge and continuing development in technology will improve living conditions in the world,” she says.
Envisioning the future 10 years from now, Ntlhe says that, as space travel becomes more commonplace, knowledge in and of the space industry will grow concurrently. She anticipates developments here will spur on the next generation, as it essentially did for her. “Children and young people find the subject of space and space travel to be uniquely fascinating, and the possibility to travel to space themselves — especially at an affordable price — is of much greater interest in young people than watching people traveling to space or than simulating traveling to space,” she says. VS