Dr Lee-Anne McKinnell

Trailblazer in Space Science leaves a remarkable legacy

Dr Lee-Anne McKinnell: 30 December 1970 – 19 August 2023

Dr Lee-Anne McKinnell, Managing Director of the South African National Space Agency’s Space Science Programme and Sandbaai resident, passed away on Saturday 19 August 2023 after a short illness.

Lee-Anne was born in Vereeniging in 1970 and grew up in Witpoortjie, close to Krugersdorp. She was the first female learner to complete a technical matric at the John Orr Engineering School of Specialisation.

Her father, an Electrical Engineer wanted her to follow in his footsteps, however, she developed a passion for physics. True to her nature, she decided to satisfy both and enrolled in a BSC Physics and Electronics course.

After obtaining her degree, Lee-Anne pursued her Honours, Masters and PhD in Physics through Rhodes University. She later obtained an MBA from the Business School Netherlands (BSN) in 2015, with distinction.

She was accepted as a Postdoctoral Fellow at Graz University of Technology in Austria and fondly remembered the time she spent there.

Lee-Anne was appointed as a junior lecturer at Rhodes, but not for long, as she rose through the academic ranks and was appointed Honorary Research Professor at Rhodes University in 2011. She was well known for managing the Ionosonde Network in South Africa.

Lee-Anne was appointed to the Hermanus Magnetic Observatory (HMO) in 2004 as a researcher and was then appointed as the Acting Managing Director in 2010, after which she moved to Hermanus part-time. Her husband, John McKinnell, joined her in Hermanus in 2012 when the HMO was incorporated in the newly established South African National Space Agency (SANSA) and they relocated permanently.

Lee-Anne played a crucial role in the establishment of the Space Agency, as a board member and an executive and many of the students she supervised are now full-time researchers at SANSA and around the world.

She served as SANSA Space Science Managing Director for 12 years and during this time made a tremendous contribution to the space science, skills development, and science engagement fields.

The Space Weather Project was her crowning achievement which produced a Space Weather Capability for the country in three years, on time, and on budget. The launch of the 24/7 Space Weather Centre in November of last year was a highlight for her and the SANSA team. Lee-Anne was a space weather advocate and custodian of the unique SANSA Hermanus facility which she loved and is now a National Key Point, thanks to her continued efforts to protect the site.

Dr McKinnell served on numerous international committees and working groups, including as the Space Weather co-chair for the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO), ensuring Africa’s interests are maintained in the field of space science and related technology. She also received a long list of awards for her contribution to the Space Science field.

Lee-Anne loved animals, especially dogs. She owned several dogs during her life, including a border collie named Skye and a dachshund named Pixie. She loved listening to music and took up baking as her lock-down hobby. She was also a skilled seamstress, a hobby she learned from her grandmother and practiced often.

Her husband, John McKinnell, expressed his gratitude for all the messages that have been pouring in since the announcement. “I received several messages from prominent scientists who told me they owe their current positions to Lee-Anne. SANSA was Lee-Anne’s life. She gave so much to the organisation, but also received so much in return, particularly from the wonderful Hermanus Space Science team. She will be sorely missed by me and sorely missed by them.

Dr McKinnell is survived by her husband John, her parents Lynn and John Williscroft, and her two brothers Mark and Gerald Williscroft, and their families.

Dr Lee-Anne McKinnell

Dr Lee-Anne McKinnell

Daleen Fouche