The Zambian Space Programme

It was not just the US and the Soviet Union racing to the Moon in the 1960s. A 1964 article in Time magazine about the independence of Zambia included a footnote referring to one man who was not so happy about the celebrations - because it was getting in the way of his space program.

Edward Makuka Nkoloso

That man was Edward Makuka Nkoloso, a science teacher and the self-appointed director of Zambia’s unofficial National Academy of Science, Space Research and Philosophy. 

Numerous foreign journalists picked up the story, although from the outset it was unclear exactly how ‘serious’ Nkoloso’s mission was, and how much he was playing up to the international interest. In one interview for example, Nkoloso told reporter how his cadets’ uniform of green satin jackets with yellow trousers was down to the fact that “we are the Dynamite Rock Music Group when we are not space cadets”.

Reportedly inspired by a flight he took as a young child and his desire to walk on the clouds, Nkoloso’s aim was to make Zambia the first country to reach the Moon. Perhaps in the wake of independence Nkoloso was keen to prove the country’s power and importance on the world stage. And what better place to test that independence out than the space race?

In an attempt to achieve this mission to the Moon Nkoloso recruited twelve astronauts, and put them through rigorous training of his own devising. He put them in an oil drum, spun them round trees and rolled them down hills in order to prepare them for weightlessness. He taught them to walk on their hands as he believed this to be the way to walk in space. He made them swing on a rope, before cutting the rope to allow them to experience freefall.

16-year-old Matha Mwamba was chosen as the first person to attempt a mission to Mars. Nkoloso claimed that by the end of 1964 the teenage girl astronauta, along with two cats and a Christian missionary, would make the journey to the Moon and then on to Mars.

Nkoloso’s dog Cyclops meanwhile was also to be taken to space, in Zambia’s answer to the Soviet Union’s Laika. The spacecraft was even named after the dog – Cyclops I.

Nkoloso reportedly wrote to numerous countries and organisations asking for money, from Israel and the US to the USSR and UNESCO. The donations he reportedly asked for ranged from $20 million to $2 billion; he received nothing back but well wishes.

Despite asking for money from them, Nkoloso was incredibly suspicious of the US and Soviet Union, saying he believed they wanted to steal his secrets and get to the lunar surface first.

The programme eventually fell apart, and not just because of the lack of funds. Mwamba fell pregnant and returned home. Other astronauts left, reportedly going on drinking sprees and never returning or moving onto other pastimes such as tribal song and dance. And with no astronauts and no money, the Moon can seem awfully far away.

After the failure of his space program, Nkoloso moved into politics – he was appointed to the Liberation Centre, which focused on regional freedom.

Afronauts

Nkoloso's attempts at space travel might have been a forgotten part of history, an odd quirk in an old article, had it not been for artists such as Cristina de Middel. De Middel’s 2012 series of photographs titled ‘Afronauts’ – the same title Nkoloso gave to his astronauts – tells this story anew.

After coming across the Zambian Space Program in a list of failed experiments, de Middel felt compelled to capture the story. The ‘Afronauts’ photobook was self-published by de Middel and met with critical acclaim.

Originally working as a photojournalist, De Middel’s work sits at the intersection of fact and fiction, examining the relationship between photography and truth.

The Afronauts photo book has been described as a ‘fictional record’ of the Zambian Space Programme.

The images depict a Moon landing with an African twist, as well as capturing the ‘homemade’ feel of Nkoloso’s project. In the photos the helmets are made out of glass domes from old street lamps, and de Middel’s 92-year-old grandmother made many of the spacesuits seen in the images. It’s a far cry from the sleek NASA images we associate with space exploration, but it speaks to a wider conversation – who gets to explore space? What do they look like? Who do they represent?

Find out more about the future of space travel