James Mason recalls a boyhood fascination with building balsa-wood gliders. He’d throw them from the balcony at home in Durban, hoping they’d soar into the adjacent valley. Today his playing field is light years larger, but his ballistic curiosity is unchanged. Mason studied physics and applied mathematics at the University of Cape Town, followed by his honours at the associated national astrophysics and space science programme. He completed his master’s in space studies at France’s International Space University. In 2010 Mason joined Nasa’s Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley, California, where the 27-year-old rocketeer has become a key member of the team researching novel methods to counter the growing problem of deep-space collisions between satellites and space debris — a situation he calls a celestial “tragedy of the commons”. Though he still loves the work, Mason sees himself back in South Africa in the medium term, leading a local research and design programme and promoting space science.
— Ian Macleod