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KWASU is struggling, to get its spacecraft project off the ground

Professor Leo Daniel is a former Consulting Engineer for the Arien-5 launch vehicle—current workhorse, of the European Space Agency (ESA).  Since 2011, the Akwa Ibom State indigene has been Provost, Faculty of Engineering, at Kwara State University, Malete: Which now offers Nigeria’s first approved degree in Aerospace and Astronautics Engineering.  

Professor Leo Daniel

A former Martin Luther King Professor of Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT),Daniel is leading a drive to build a miniature launch vehicle, modeled after the now-retired U.S. Space Shuttle. But in this interview with J.K. Obatala, he admits that “liftoff” for KWASU’s reusable spacecraft project has, so far, been less than spectacular. 

A lack of local manufacturing thrust, combined with strategic trade and information restrictions, is threatening to deflect Nigeria from its window of opportunity.  Nevertheless, with the U.S. Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech) and the Korean Advanced Institute of Technology (KAIST) as prime collaborators, the Provost insists that KWASU is still on its planned trajectory. Professor Daniel holds U.S. citizenship and resides in Gainesville, Georgia with his wife and five children. 

He commutes to Nigeria, every six months. What, in a nutshell, are you trying to do at Kwara State University (KWASU)? One of our main objectives, is to build a re-usable launch vehicle, like the former U.S. Space Shuttle—but much simpler and on a smaller scale. 

Professor Leo Daniel Towards this end, and to support our intensive research and instructional regime, KWASU is investing heavily in infrastructure and equipment. The Universities Commission recently approved our courses, making us the first Nigerian institution to offer a degree in Aeronautics and Astronautics Engineering. What kind of “infrastructure” and “equipment” are you referring to? We’re constructing an aerodrome (a small airport) on campus. 

It is the hub of an infrastructural complex that includes wind tunnels for aerodynamic testing, as well as systems for training pilots… 
The Faculty of Engineering structure is nearly done. Phase-1 is finished; and we’ve already moved in… 
Before we go further, summarize the three elements of KWASU’s research and development regime, which you previously delineated, off-tape. …O.k. 

We are looking at: (a) Integrating propulsion systems. That is under “transportation”; (b) Computational systems—where we have avionics and all that; and (c) The system, generally. That includes testing, rocketry and what-have-you. Who are your foreign collaborators? Right now, we’re bringing in the Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech) and the Korean Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST), to work with us in propulsion and various other areas.

 Georgia Tech is also taking our post graduate students—both Master’s and Ph.D. In fact, we currently have two Ph.D. candidates, who are working on their dissertation there. KAIST is making an effort to link us to their data and information storage system. But the current situation, with North Korea, and all that, has delayed things… Are you doing any testing now? Yes. 

We are starting with wind tunnels. We’ve already constructed a sonic tunnel—with wind-speeds up to that of sound—for conducting tests. We are now trying to acquire a supersonic tunnel (in which air flows faster than sound). I think I should add too, that we’ve bought a very powerful computer— capable of highly complex mathematical simulations… 

A supercomputer? Yes. We’re trying to get it installed… In time to come, the aerodrome will serve as a test-base, for many of the things we want to do—including rocketry. Are you liaising with Professor Augustine Esogbue, Prof. Emeritus, at Georgia tech? Professor Esogbue has been talking to me…. We first met at Georgia Tech, about four years ago, when I went there—with Professor Ita Okon Bassey Ewa, then Minister of Science and Technology—for very high level talks. Esogbue lent us critical support. He was so instrumental, in getting things done, during our visit to the state. He greatly facilitated the signing of an MOU, between Nigeria, Tech’s president and the Governor of Georgia. Is Esogbue involved with KWASU, in any way? Yes…. 

We want to bring him on board—when we can find the money. Right now, KWASU doesn’t have adequate funds, to hire someone like Esogbue. But we are working towards that… You mentioned something about a “small space shuttle”. …We’re studying how to develop a spacecraft that functions like the former U.S. Shuttle—a miniature spacecraft (by comparison) that will fly in Earth’s atmosphere, as well as go into space and return. 

This means (a) designing a vehicle that can achieve liftoff and re-entry at supersonic speeds and (b) developing a TPS (thermal protection systems) to ensure the safety of its crew. We’ll be working on all these systems here… How are you going to do all this, without a manufacturing sector? When the steel industry—and other heavy industries—aren’t working? Well, that’s a good point! 

But, you know, the space industries in the U.S.A., Europe and elsewhere resulted from research. And research comes from the universities. Hence we’ve begun a very aggressive research initiative…The two Ph.D. students we have at Georgia Tech, are studying space aerodynamics. 

One is finishing next year, while the other will complete his work in two years. Our strategy, is to develop a space-exploration ethos—which has to grow out of our research. KWASU is creating a culture, generating a spirit. 
The industrial aspect can come later.  Are you interfacing with Government, in your drive to develop a research base? Yes. We’ve signed a memorandum of understanding with the Nigerian Airforce. 

That is where we can actually start something. We also have an MOU with the Navy—and with some industries (whose names I cannot remember), as well as universities… Let’s return, once more, to the issue of manufacturing. Are you deliberating with Government, on the need to revive the steel industry? Well, as you know, this has long been a political issue. Nevertheless, we do have faculty members lobbying Government, to restart the steel industry. Basic steel plates, for example, can be used to manufacture many of the things we need, enabling us to do a lot more, faster. 

But we cannot wait until the steel industry is revived! We got to be starting something, as young people used to say! You mentioned “basic steel plates”. I lived at the Delta Steel Company (DSC) for many years. DSC has no flat sheet component. It’s only outfitted to produce billets. [Laughing] Well, we’ve built a lot of industries…that are either not functioning or not functioning properly… But that is a political, rather than a manufacturing issue, as such. If we want to manufacture, we can start on a small scale. 
That’s what KWASU is doing. We’ve bought small furnaces, with which to forge billets of steel. We also have tension machines to test steel structures—as well as an SEM (scanning electron microscope) and a TEM (transition electron microscope) to help us analyze the internal structure of metals… 

You once expressed hopes of roping Lockheed Martin—the giant U.S. defense manufacturer—into your operation. Did you succeed? Not exactly. We’re having to collaborate with Lockheed Martin through Georgia Tech. That’s because space-related issues involve classified technology and patents. So one needs ties to a U.S. university, to get certain things done. In other words, Lockheed will not collaborate directly with a Nigerian industry or university. That’s very interesting. Why? Well, I think it has to do with the security of classified information, as well as intellectual property transfer. So anything you want to do with Lockheed Martin, has to be through Georgia Tech? Yes. Georgia Tech, or any other U.S. institution, with whom Lockheed and KWASU might have a mutual agreement…

 That means, you’ve hit some strategic snags? Well, to a certain extent. When it comes to strategic matters, such as launch vehicles, weaponry and all that—you know, it gets very, very difficult… From whom, must you seek permission? In the case of the U.S.A., it’s ITAR—the International Trade in Arms Agreement—which has a list of controlled items. Under ITAR regulations, information and material touching on defense and military related technologies can only be released to “U.S. Persons”. Others need approval from the Department of State (or a special exemption). 

They will not grant that permission to us. Nigeria isn’t one of the nations that would be allowed to do this type of thing. Then, aside from bi-lateral limitations (as in the Lockheed situation), there are also “arms control” and other global protocols to contend with… So I’ve been trying to see where we can cut corners and get certain institutions to train our students in sensitive areas, like propulsion.  O.k. Let’s assume you succeed in “cutting corners”. What then? …We want to make a huge impact that will help Nigeria move forward in defense systems and what-have-you…  

When you say, “defense systems,” are you talking about guided missiles—and things like that? Yes. Defense systems include the military, space and all the related technologies that are involved in defending the territorial integrity of Nigeria. That means satellite development, launch vehicles, etc.… Do you have any Georgia Tech people at Kwara State University now? Not now. But they used to come. What we do, for the time being, is hold telecom conferences. If a faculty member wants to teach a course, he’ll set it up and students will receive the lectures, directly from Georgia Tech.

 It’s very expensive. But we’re trying to make it work. The downside, is Nigeria’s shaky network system and erratic power supply. We back-up the grid system with a generator; and we keep the bandwidth of the network up to a comfortable level—so that when a lecture is going on, students will get it live, without interruptions… Why don’t Georgia Tech lecturers come here? They intend to. But there’re issues, such as confidentiality and, you know, this Boko Haram thing and all that. 

The prevailing situation in Nigeria, is creating some kind of fear… Insecurity… Yes. Insecurity. So they want to be quite sure, that when they reach here they will be secure and can do what they came to do, without any fear… So we are working on that. I know you as a Professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). 

How did you get from MIT to Georgia Tech? Well, you know, when I came to Nigeria to start this programme, the Minister of Science and Technology, Professor Ewa, was very determined to develop a second space agency in Nigeria. He said NASRDA did not meet up to his vision. So I took him, with three Nigerian universities, to… Georgia Tech. I cannot be too sure, but I think the institutions involved were KWASU, Oyo State University and Ahmadou Bello University, in Zaria…
That is what really resulted in me going to Georgia Tech. What are the other two universities doing? …They are not really doing much, in terms of collaboration. 
It’s only KWASU that is actually moving forward… What happened? I really can’t say. Maybe the management of those institutions was simply unable to interact meaningfully with Georgia Tech. Leaderships makes a big difference. KWASU has a very dynamic and committed Vice Chancellor, Professor Abdulrasheed Na’Allah. He has gone all out, to support the Aeronautics and Astronautics programme, and move it forward…  How did you get involved with KWASU? I did not know anyone in Kware State. I didn’t even know where it was located, on the map of Nigeria. That is the simple truth. It was when the then Governor, Dr.Abubakar Bukola Saraki—who is currently Senate President—invited me to Kwara, that I got involved. …I must confess. When I came, I was not impressed; and I did not take the job. I turned it down three times! …

 Now that you have the job, are you satisfied with your decision? [Laughing] Well, no job satisfaction is one hundred percent. There are challenges here, really—to be frank… You have to be very patient. It’s not the money that’s keeping me at KWASU. They could not pay the amount it would take for me to stay… Rather, it is the passion I have, for what I am doing: The opportunity to establish an aeronautics and astronautics programme in Nigeria. I am grateful to the then Vice Chancellor, Professor Shuaibu Oba AbdulRaheem, for helping me over initial hurdles… 

Do you still have ties to MIT? I’m still affiliated with MIT—but not as a lecturer. It’s only for research and supervising postgraduate students. You were a consulting engineer, with the European Space Agency (ESA), during the development of the Arien-5 spacecraft. Are you still connected with ESA? Yes. That’s part of the initiative we want to bring to Nigeria… We are trying to get ESA to give KWASU students an opportunity to study in Europe and learn about space exploration, testbed development, propulsion and all that.  I remember, from an earlier interview, that you hold two engineering patents. Can you discuss them? Only one. 

The other falls within the strategic realm of U.K. Defense and NASA. They’re using it for military aircraft—which makes it a classified issue. The ESA patent involves simulations to develop supersonic flight. It’s being used on their Arien-5 launch vehicle. It’s a collaboration and so, is not something I alone can take credit for.  ESA is now developing Arien-6. Are you consulting for that project, as well? Arien-6 is actually a continuation of Arien-5. One rocket is evolving into the other. It’s an integrated system and, of course, a generic design concept. There’s not much difference between them… 

But to answer your question, I am not directly involved with Arien-6. Nevertheless, the engineers will definitely contact us, if the need arises … You live in Gainesville,Georgia, U.S.A.Are you going to transfer your base, back to Nigeria? Nah, nah, nah!You know, I’m a U.S. citizen. My wife would not want to come. She is a French-born Nigerian, who grew up in the U.S.A…  What influences, led you into advanced engineering? Probably mathematics. I was so fascinated with calculations. When I was doing my O-level at Federal Government College, Jos, one particular equation—the quadratic and simultaneous equation—intrigued me. That is really what whetted my interest in mathematics. Bird flight also intrigued me. 

When I was a small boy, I’d watch birds flying in the sky and wonder about how they do it. I told my Mom I wanted to fly like that, one day. Well, I still can’t fly like a bird! But I am helping to build spacecraft and writing a book on flapping-winged flight! I went to medical school for two years. 

I didn’t find it funny! I hated it—and eventually switched to engineering. My Mom was furious! She had already been boasting, to her colleagues, that her son was going to be a doctor. So I had to promise her, that I’d get a Ph. D. in engineering. That way, her friends would still know me as “doctor!”

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