Zambia is the only developing country which, seriously or not, had a programme to send people to outer space back in the 1960s.
My heart goes out to the schoolteacher who, almost single-handedly, masterminded the Zambian Mars project.
A manned Mars mission would be ambitious even today, assuming the combined resources of Soviet and US space programmes. Mars is some 225 million km away (on average), and a space rocket would require anything from 150 to 250 days to get there. Even for NASA and the Soviet space programme, cost was a major deterrent. Estimates for a manned flight have been as high as five hundred billion dollars.
For little Zambia to dream of a Mars mission, at the time when the first manned moon landing was still several years away, was nothing short of audacious.
It wasn’t President Kenneth Kaunda or his Zambian government which were driven by this dream. The dreamer was Edward Makula Nkoloso, a schoolteacher. He set up the Zambia National Academy of Science, Space Research and Astronomical Research. This ambitious project was situated in a farm house near the Zambian capital of Lusaka, and he appointed himself as its director. Once the government realised that Nkoloso was serious about the space project, it distanced itself from it. Undaunted, Nkoloso planned to send several young people and two cats, as well as a missionary, to Mars (though the missionary had no instructions to convert any Martians encountered).
In 1964, Zambia was a newly-independent farming country whose main export was copper. Only industrial nations have succeeded in breaking through the frontier of space. An unmanned satellite would have been too ambitious even for India and China back in 1964, leave alone a manned Mars Mission. Even the ex-USSR and the United States, pioneer explorers of outer space, were not looking beyond the moon at the time.
Zambian Airways, the national airline, got off the ground only in 1964 with prop aircraft such as the Douglas DC-3. It entered the jet age in 1968 with British BAC 1-11 aircraft and by leasing an Alitalia DC-8 flying from Lusaka to London. This was the year in which Apollo 11 landed Neil Armstrong on the moon.
Zambia didn’t even have television back in 1964 (Zambians got TV in the same year that we did, in 1979). What this means is that Nkolo’s project was more a quixotic fantasy than something feasible, hence its enduring appeal to the romantic imagination. A Spanish photographer has come out with a photo book, and a young African-American photographer has made a pre-thesis film called ‘Afronauts’ as part of her arts graduate film programme.
Christina de Middel’s “The Afronauts” photo exhibition used actual letters and documents from the time with her photographic re-creation of the event, and the book has sold out. France’s Bodomo’s film hinged on an attempt to turn her own migratory experience to explore modern-day definitions of home. As she put it: “I am extremely excited to tell an underdog story from the perspective of exiles and outsiders, the people who most need the promises of the space rate…we are interested in exploring modern-day myths: the iconic place of the Apollo 11 touchdown in our collective consciousness, and the importance of myth in an enlightened age of scientific exploration.”None of Nkolo’s chosen few were pilots (current wisdom has it that astronauts had to test pilots). But his thinking was advanced enough to include a young woman in the team, at a time when only Russian Valentina Thereshkova (a textile worker) had succeeded in a space programme and the Americans hadn’t even thought of sending a woman to space (the first American woman in space was Sally Ride, part of the Space shuttle Challenger’s crew in 1983).
Unfortunately, Nkolo’s 17-year-old girl candidate got pregnant and had to withdraw prematurely from the programme.
What’s so appealing about Nkolo’s space programme is its simplicity (some might call it simple-mindedness). Normally, astronauts begin their training in simulated space conditions of weightlessness in a swimming pool. Nkolo decided to put his would-be-astronauts inside 44-gallon steel drums, which were then rolled down a hillside.
If this sounds bizarre, it should be noted that this used to be common practice in the military forces of some countries when it came to training paratroopers. It’s not known if this is enforced anywhere any more.Nkolo’s vision, appealing in its naivete and impracticality, continues to inspire art, not science. Information on Zambia’s film industry is sketchy, but it seems to have done better, on the whole, than the space project. It would be really nice to see a Zambian film, fictional or documentary, about Nkolo and his ‘Afronauts.’ That would be a fitting tribute to an endearingly madcap project.