Months after Jomo Kenyatta became Kenya’s prime minister in 1963, a group of Italian scientists walked into his office with bundles of documents.
Their mission was to convince Kenyatta to sign a pact to allow Italy to establish a space centre at the remote village of Ngomeni in Magarini constituency in Kilifi.
Franco Esposito, 80, who was among the scientists, said much was happening in Italy then and Rome wanted to establish a foothold in Africa, especially near Ethiopia and Somalia.
“The idea of a space centre came when we (Italy) were at war with the Soviet Union,” said Esposito.
In the region, Italy was rebuilding relations after the end of the Italo-Ethiopian War II.
Esposito said that Italy had initially identified a place in Somalia where it planned to put up the space centre but eventually settled on Kenya.
“The idea to put up the centre in Somalia was abandoned because of political turmoil and its links with the Soviet Union,” said Esposito, who in 1988 was appointed to head the centre.
“We approached Jomo Kenyatta and proposed to install the base in Kenya but he told us to wait until Kenya gained full independence.
“He, however, gave us the go-ahead to look for a suitable location,” he said.
Little is known about Ngomeni village in Kilifi until matters of space exploration are broached.
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San Macro project came to fruition following a joint space cooperation programme between the University of Rome, NASA and Kenya in 1963.
“We chose Ngwala Bay near Ngomeni because the platform would be repaired from the South East Monsoon, which has big waves by the Ras Ngomeni cape,” he said.
The team transported the space platform by sea from Italy to the port of Mombasa and then by road to Ngwala Bay for installation.
Three off-shore rig platforms were installed. The Luigi Broglio Space Centre on the mainland sits on 8.6 acres.
The offshore launch site platforms include the San Marco platform where the rockets take off.
About 600 metres from it is the Santa Rita platform meant for logistics and control and a third smaller platform that hosts the generator.
The satellites to be launched were for studying the density of the atmosphere at high altitudes (200-400 kilometres).
The centre has also launched astronomy satellites for the study of universe and discovery of black holes (collapsed stars).
The Italian multi-billion space research programme began in 1959 with the creation of the Centro Ricerche Aerospaziali (CRA) at the University of Rome.
Three years later, on September 7, 1962, the university signed a memorandum of understanding with NASA to collaborate on a space research programme named San Marco.
The San Marco project in Kenya was to focus on the launching of scientific satellites by scout rockets from a mobile rigid platform located close to the equator, which is an energetically favourable location for rocket launches.
“The Italian Research Space programme and NASA wanted to install an oil rig-like platform off-shore to launch rockets and two places were identified – one in South America and the other one was Somalia.
Esposito said that he was the range manager of the centre that was under Prof Luigi Broglio who died in 2002.
“From 1966 to early 1967, we set up the full range and on April 27, 1967, we successfully launched the first San Marco space satellite,” he said.
Since then, he said, the centre has launched 12 Italian rocket satellites and several others belonging to Nasa, the UK and China.
“The most important satellite was launched on December 12, 1972 and it was called Uhuru in honour of Kenya,” he said.