The US and Russia might be the most well-known for their fight to get into space in the 1960s, but a lesser-known story if of a Zambians mission to give his country a place in the space race.
Zambia, previously colonised under the name Northern Rhodesia, became independent in 1964, just five years before the US put a man on the moon.
One man, Edward Makuka Nkoloso, a science teacher and the self-appointed director of Zambia’s unofficial National Academy of Science, Space Research and Philosophy, believed that Zambia had a place among the cosmos as well.
The world initially learnt of him and his plans at the bottom on a 1964 Time magazine article on the country’s independence. The article made little comment on the man, but it sparked interest internationally whether his space programme was a joke or serious.
Reports from the time said Nkoloso had recruited 12 astronauts, who went through training he had designed to mimic space travel. This included having the cadets roll down a hill in a steel drum to “experience weightlessness”, be swing around a tree in a similar drum and walking around on their hands and knees as he believed this is how people walked in space.
Of the twelve, 16-year-old Matha Mwamba was chosen to be the first Zambian to attempt a mission to Mars, along with two cats and a Christian missionary.
According to The New Yorker, Nkoloso had said he told the missionary not to convert people if they didn’t want it.
The programme fell apart, despite Nkoloso allegedly reaching out to various donors for funding, including Russia and the US. He also lamented in interviews the lack of discipline among his recruits who he said went on drinking sprees and did not focus on space.
While mostly forgotten to history, Nkoloso’s Zambian space programme has been represented in film and photographs in more recent times. Cristina de Middel completes a series of photographs titled ‘Afronauts’ in 2012 which she called a fictional account of the failed space programme. A short film by the same name was made in 2014.