UKZN is driven to engineer SA’s aerospace future
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By Christine Cuénod
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.
Young engineers moving through its ranks are making their own dreams, and that of South Africa’s burgeoning space engineering industry, a reality through innovative research, hard work, and a passion for the skies.
One such individual 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 feature on the radio about 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 called the subject the “mother of engineering” as it incorporates aspects of multiple engineering fields.
His undergraduate years were marked by accomplishments. He achieved the Dean’s Commendation for six of his eight semesters of study and through serious effort and determination, Mchunu graduated with Cum Laude. During his undergraduate studies, a conversation with Dr Jean Pitot piqued his interest in the work being done in ASReG to develop sounding rockets to address Africa’s launch needs. With no current launch satellite capability, Africa relies upon expensive foreign launch services, necessitating programmes like those underway in ASReG to bridge that gap.
From that moment, Mchunu decided to pursue his Master of Science in Engineering under Pitot’s supervision. Now in his second year of research, he has been working on the design of propellant tanks and airframe components for a liquid propellant suborbital rocket that ASReG hopes to build, supported by a bursary from the South African National Space Agency (SANSA).
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.
For those looking to follow in his footsteps, Mchunu advises they study for understanding rather than just passing, “because the benefit is ending up in a field like rocket science that enables the use of science for tangible, physical solutions”.
The sacrifice 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, said Mchunu. His parents have expressed pride and joy at his achievements, and for Mchunu, the highlight of his work has been the strong footing it has provided him to contribute to South Africa’s nascent aerospace industry’s growth.
He credited 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. He added that ASReG was unique in the research opportunities it provided in rocket science and in the development of sounding rockets.
“ASReG is doing great work for the country, inspiring students to pursue postgraduate 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,” Mchunu said.