Born and raised in a township, Mandla Maseko has spent his life at the mercy of the heavens.
"Once it rains, the lights go out," the 25-year-old said. "I do know the life of a candle." But from
this humblest of launchpads, Maseko is poised to defy the laws of physical and political gravity
by becoming the first black African in space. The DJ is among 23 young people who saw off 1
million other entrants from around the world to emerge victorious in the Lynx Apollo Space
Academy competition. Their prize is to be blasted 62 miles into orbit aboard a Lynx mark II
shuttle in 2015. "It's crazy," said Maseko, the son of a toolmaker and cleaning supervisor. "It
hasn't really sunk in yet. I'm envious of myself. "I'm not trying to make this a race thing but us
blacks grew up dreaming to a certain stage. You dreamed of being a policeman or a lawyer
but you knew you won't get as far as pilot or astronaut. Then I went to space camp and I thought,
I can actually be an astronaut." Maseko's father, who grew up in such poverty that he got his first
pair of shoes when he was 16, was determined that his children would never go hungry. Maseko
and his four younger siblings were brought up in a simple brick house with access to electricity
and running water. "I don't remember going to bed without having eaten," he said. "My dad
provided for us. He is my hero, and then Nelson Mandela comes after."
The young Maseko's imagination was fired by the science fiction series Star Trek and films such
as Armageddon and Apollo 13. "I thought, that looks fun. No matter what life throws at you, you
can use it and come out on top. If you get lemons, you must make lemon juice." Maseko does
not drink or smoke, does not have a girlfriend and lives with his parents in Mabopane township
near the capital, Pretoria. He enrolled as a part-time civil engineering student but had to drop out
due to lack of funds. Then this year he spotted an advert for a chance to go into space. "I was in
the right place at the right time and in the right frame of mind."
The competition required him to send in a picture of himself, so he got a friend to photograph him
in mid-air after jumping off a wall. It also asked him to explain his motivation. "I want to defy the
laws of gravity," he answered. He was among three South Africans – one black, one white, one
of Indian origin – selected from a field of 85,000 hopefuls. "We wanted to show South Africa is
way past the colour of our skin. We are the human race." Maseko, whose Twitter profile shows
him in a spacesuit, is aware of his own symbolism nearly two decades after the dismantling of
racial apartheid. "I'm a township boy and I'm doing this for the typical township boy who wasn't
born with a silver spoon," he said. "I'll be the first black South African and the first black African
to go into space. When you think of the firsts, the first black presidents – Barack Obama, Nelson
Mandela – just to know your name will be written with those people is unbelievable.