Cheick Modibo Diarra – Africa’s First NASA Astrophysicist, Ex-Chairman of Microsoft Africa, and Former Malian President

Cheick Modibo Diarra was born in 1952 in Nioro du Sahel, an urban commune situated in the Kayes Region of western Mali, and he grew up in a farming community with his parents.

Early life and education

He completed his primary and secondary education in Mali before moving to Paris to pursue the study of mathematics, physics, and analytic mechanics at Université Pierre-et-Marie-Curie. After completing his undergraduate course in France, he moved to Howard University, an HBCU in the United States, to complete his Masters and PhD in aerospace engineering and mechanical engineering, respectively.

Université Pierre-et-Marie-Curie

Howard University – Source: AAIHS

Starting at NASA

Following his graduation, he took up a teaching role at Howard. On one particular occasion, after finishing delivering a lesson on spatial mechanics, he headed to the canteen for his lunch and bumped into a recruiter from NASA, who initially thought Diarra was a graduate student. After some discussion, he was invited to a formal interview; this was a very exciting opportunity for Diarra, as he had always been intrigued by NASA’s work after seeing the US Moon Landing in 1969.  His interview was successful and, in July 1988, Diarra arrived at Caltech’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California to begin his work.

Caltech’s JPL in Pasadena, California

He was involved in several of the significant NASA projects of the late 80s and early 90s; the Magellan Probe (1989) was launched a few months after joining the JPL. This was a pioneering expedition; its synthetic-aperture radar mapping allowed them to image the surface of Venus in 3D, which is impossible via optical frequency methods due to the complex gaseous nature of Venus’ planetary atmosphere.

Popularity on the continent following the Mars Pathfinder mission

Aside from these, Diarra was also involved in many other projects, such as the Galileo spacecraft to Jupiter (1989), Ulysses to Sun (1990), and the Mars Observer (1992). Of his other projects, he states that he is most proud of the Mars Pathfinder mission of 1997, which involved the landing of a roving probe on Mars to analyse the planet. Malians were incredibly proud and he was invited back to give lectures across the country. The Pathfinder mission was broadcast live around the world at the time and, upon seeing Diarra’s face on television, many young people on the continent felt a strong sense of pride and inspiration. So great was this popularity that, not too long afterwards, Diarra was regularly receiving close to 1000 emails a day from inquisitive individuals. Due to his now huge following, NASA funded him to hold conferences for young, aspiring Africans to encourage more of the continent’s youth to get into science and technology, and Diarra subsequently became the Director of Education and Public Outreach for NASA’s Mars Exploration program.

Development work in Africa, Chairman of Microsoft Africa, and Presidency in Mali

Two years after the landing of the Mars Pathfinder, Diarra set up the Pathfinder Foundation, an initiative dedicated to education development across the continent, and in 2002, he founded a solar energy development laboratory in the Malian capital city, Bamako. He also served as a goodwill ambassador for UNESCO and the CEO of the African Virtual University in the early 2000s. Bill Gates approached Diarra in his retirement on his farm to recruit him to be the Chairman of Microsoft Africa, which Diarra held from 2006 to 2011 – he worked on trying to improve the accessibility and affordability of hardware and software across the continent, as well as aiming to reduce the number of regions without electrical connectivity.

Never straying from a challenge, Cheick Diarra turned his eyes towards politics; he launched his bid to become the President of Mali in 2012 with the creation of his political party, Rally for Development in Mali, in 2011. His main motivation for wanting to engage in this was highlighted by his belief that, “politics must not only be a matter for professionals,” and his wish to improve the lives of those living in rural, agrarian communities like those in which he grew up.

2012 happened to be a very significant year in Mali, as groups of Malian soldiers turned against the government and staged a coup d’état, following discontent with how Amadou Toumani Touré, the President at the time, had dealt with the Tuareg Rebellion. On the 17th April, Diarra was appointed as interim President and served until the junta led by Captain Amadou Sanogo arrested him on 11th December, 2012, thus forcing his immediate resignation.

Diarra unsuccessfully ran a campaign in the Presidential election of 2013, in which he obtained 2.08% of the popular vote (64,829 votes).


Cheick Modibo Diarra is undoubtedly one of the most influential individuals in Mali. He has a fantastic list of achievements under his belt and despite having travelled the world perfecting his knowledge, he never once forgot where he came from. Coming back to pass on his expertise to the next generation of young Malian (and other African) youths across the continent is wonderful. When he was younger, while his mother was impressed with his high grades in school, she would always remind him to pay attention to those of his peers who did not score as highly, insisting that he should always try his best to assist the people around him and leave no person behind. In an interview with CNN, Diarra said these standards that his mother instilled in him mean that he believes he is unable to celebrate his personal successes without seeing the successes of his fellow people.

None can deny that Diarra is just the kind of ambitious and enterprising role model that young black children deserve!


Cheikh Modibo Diarra: Interview on CNN’s African Voices jpg jpg


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