South of the Equator and Headed for the Stars

By Steve Bartlett

Science and technology benefit some people’s lives soon after they’re developed. For other people, it takes much longer to see those benefits. Often, this delay hits minorities and the economically disadvantaged the hardest. Hildreth “Hal” Walker, chairman of A-MAN Incorporated, and his wife, Dr. Bettye Walker, have spent the past several decades working to correct this disparity, first with minority students in Southern California, and more recently with students in South Africa. Mr. Walker briefed an OASIS audience on their work in “Space Education in South Africa” on May 18 at the International Science Discovery and Learning Center in Los Angeles.

Hal Walker has been involved in science and technology projects since the late 1950’s, beginning with the Defense Department’s Ballistic Missile Early Warning System radars in northern Alaska. He subsequently went to work on early laser systems at KORAD Laser Systems with Dr. Theodore Maiman, father of the laser, which led to his involvement in the Lunar Laser Ranging Experiment on three Apollo Moon missions. He later went on to work on laser systems at Hughes Aircraft Company, where he shared an office with future Challenger astronaut Ron McNair.

Seeing the small number of minority men and women in the science and technology fields, the high rates of unemployment among young African American men, and the public’s excitement in the space program, the Walkers became involved in space education and co-founded A-MAN Incorporated to help at-risk youth. Their work earned them considerable attention, both within and outside of Southern California, and brought them to a fateful meeting with South African president Nelson Mandela. Mandela saw the successes the Walkers were having getting young people excited about science, mathematics, engineering, and technology, and invited them to come to his country to start a similar program there.

The Walkers traveled to Capetown, South Africa and began a partnership with the Oude Molen Academy of Science and Technology, a technical high school. Many of the students there lived in slums and shanty towns and knew very little about the history, engineering, and science of space travel, to which American students are exposed at a young age. So the Walkers started teaching them about the Space Shuttle, the International Space Station and the Apollo program. They gave the students access to NASA online resources and helped to arrange for a state-of-the-art computer center at the school.

What started out with one school has grown to a dozen schools in South Africa: 10 in Capetown and 2 in Pretoria. At one of them, Fezeka Senior Secondary School, the Walkers arranged for the donation of 5 telescopes and the founding of an astronomy club and computer lab.
A student from Fezeka, Nomathemba Kontyo, became one of 16 finalists in an international essay contest sponsored by the Planetary Society to participate in the Mars Exploration Rover program. She traveled to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena with the other finalists and spent 2 weeks working on the rover mission. She went on to be an Olympic torchbearer in Capetown in 2004 and has just graduated with honors with a degree in geology. What makes her achievements all the more remarkable are that she did them while living in a shanty town, working and taking care of her siblings, and having to ride an hour each way on an overcrowded taxi to get to her classes at the university.

Another student in the program suffered severe dyslexia and had been told that the only career he was suited for was as a police officer. With the help of the Walkers, he was inspired to enter the field of technology. He learned to work with computers to overcome his learning disability and became the first student in the program to earn his PhD.

Mr. Walker went on to describe how the country has established its own space program under the South African National Space Agency. The agency’s focus is on using satellites and other space resources to benefit the lives of all South Africans. The Cape Peninsula University of Technology has entered into a partnership with California Polytechnic University at San Luis Obispo and is building its first CubeSat satellite.

The Walkers feel that the keys to success in inspiring young people to pursue the fields of science and technology are opportunity and access. As Bettye Walker said, “They make all the difference in the world.”

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