, MOJAVE, CA, USA, Oct 27 – The Kenyan flag is closer to flying in space alongside those of Tanzania and Uganda in the hands of Ashish Thakkar who is scheduled to be among a select group aboard the world\’s first commercial manned space flight.
Virgin Galactic, the US company developing the space flight system and tourism business on Tuesday successfully conducted the first piloted free flight of SpaceShipTwo, named the VSS Enterprise. The spaceship was released from its mothership at an altitude of 45,000 ft (13,700 metres).
Mr Thakkar, the Managing Director of the Mara Group of Companies, describes his upcoming space odyssey as "a little crazy, exciting." He says the need to represent his home region was a major factor for joining the adventure.
"The most special thing for me is representing our countries. I hope that our countries will get a positive buzz from this." The trip – whose date is yet to be announced – is expected to pave the way for the start of frequent space tourism flights and allow people from around the world to buy tickets and experience space.
He says he is passionate about East Africa. At the age of 12, he moved from the United Kingdom to Africa. His father and grandmother were born in Uganda while his mother was born in Mwanza, Tanzania, but the family lived in Kenya where young Thakkar partly went to school.
The family also lived in Rwanda and went through the genocide where they were refugees for a few weeks.
"Our family history goes back over a 100 years in East Africa," he says. Mr Thakkar is however a British citizen who now resides in the United Arab Emirates and spends most of his time in Sub Saharan Africa where his company the Mara Group is focused.
At the age of 15, he set up his first business, RAPS, a computer shop and dropped out of school to focus on it. Today, the company is working in 13 countries and has expanded into packaging, hospitality and real estate. In January 2009, its businesses were put under one umbrella company, Mara Group.
Mr Thakkar was in China 18 months ago when he saw the Virgin founder, Sir Richard Branson\’s space initiative on the news. He became interested, and after a series of phone calls, Sir Branson offered him the position of founder astronaut for East Africa.
Since then it has been an exciting time of training, dieting and exercising to prepare his body for the rigours of space.
"It is intense and you have to keep really fit," he says.
The Mara Group, which is sponsoring his journey, is involved in several philanthropic projects. For example, the Mara Foundation is in the process of adopting government schools to help improve the quality of education in Uganda. The target is 100 schools to benefit 100,000 students.
Mr Thakkar is on Uganda President Yoweri Museveni\’s advisory panel.
As the first East African astronaut he is officially taking the countries flags to space, which the Heads of State have agreed to hand over. He will engage in a round of meetings with the presidents of the three countries before the flight.