A life spent reaching for the stars

Otis Daniels_Finck
World-renowned Namibian scientist Dr Japie van Zyl, who passed away this week following a heart attack in Pasadena, California in the United States, has been lauded for his tireless contributions to space research that advanced humanity's understanding of the universe.

Van Zyl (63) worked for decades as a scientist for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), and contributed to at least 20 successful space missions.

He was also a recipient of the NASA Outstanding Public Service Medal, which placed him in the same league as astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins, who were honoured with this prestigious medal for their participation in the first successful moon landing over 50 years ago.

President Hage Geingob expressed his sadness following Van Zyl's passing on Wednesday, while his home country was commemorating Heroes' Day.

In a message of condolence to Van Zyl's wife, Kalfie, and the entire family, Geingob said: “The passing of Dr Japie van Zyl has robbed our nation of an outstanding scientist whose contributions in space research advanced our understanding of the universe.”

Complex field

“My exchanges with the highly affable Dr Van Zyl during his visits to the country of his birth were always pleasant and illuminating. He made the complex field of space science and his work at NASA accessible to many young Namibian learners and dared them to dream through his exchanges with them.”

Geingob said Van Zyl died at a time when he still had so much to contribute to humanity. “Namibians will remember him as one of them, born in the small town of Outjo, but who through sheer determination and a quest for excellence in research reached the summit by becoming a top engineer at NASA.”

Van Zyl studied at Stellenbosch University and in the United States before joining NASA, where he became one of the team members behind the Curiosity rover mission to Mars.

With a career spanning 33 years at NASA, Van Zyl rose through the ranks to serve on the Jet Propulsion Laboratory executive council.

Before his death, he was leading a team of scientists who are developing a revolutionary rapid Covid-19 testing system.