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South Africa mourns death of space science director

Image: SANSA

Space agency pays tribute to “trailblazer” Lee-Anne McKinnell

Lee-Anne McKinnell, managing director of the South African National Space Agency’s space science programme for the past 12 years, has died at the age of 52 after a short illness.

The agency paid tribute to McKinnell as a trailblazer whose most recent achievement was the construction of a new space weather centre at Sansa’s Hermanus headquarters. Sansa’s 107 million rand (US$5.8m) space weather centre was launched in November last year.

According to Sansa, McKinnell played a crucial role in establishing the agency, as a board member and executive. Sansa was conceptualised in South Africa’s National Space Science Act in 2008 and officially launched in 2010.

Sansa credited its designation as a strategically important National Key Point, lending it special protection against sabotage, to McKinnell, citing her “continued efforts to protect the site”.

South Africa’s science minister Blade Nzimande called McKinnell “a giant in her field, who selflessly served the Department of Science and Innovation and the higher education sector".

Sansa told Research Professional News that Jonathan Ward, the agency’s engineering and data acquisition manager for space science, will serve as acting managing director of space science until the role is filled.

Global tributes

Tributes to McKinnell have poured in from all over the world.

“We are extremely saddened to hear about the news regarding Dr Lee-Anne McKinnell,” said the Antarctic Legacy, which aims to preserve South Africa’s influence in Antarctica. “It is indeed a loss for those who knew her and the community she impacted.”

The Brazilian Space Agency said it “laments profoundly” McKinnell’s passing. “Her tireless commitment to the advancement of space exploration and scientific research was evident in the success and growth of Sansa,” it added.

“Lee-Anne did not only serve South Africa, she served Africa,” said Etim Offiong, chief scientific officer at the African Regional Center for Space Science and Technology Education in English, based in Ile-Ife, Nigeria.

Writing on LinkedIn, he added that Sansa should consider renaming its space weather centre in her honour.