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    The Almost Forgotten Zambian Space Odyssey

    Written by

    Coralie Harmache

    At the height of the space race in 1964, a Zambian school teacher vowed he would beat both the Soviets and the Americans in the space race. Shortly after his country gained independence, Edward Makuka Nkoloso revealed that he had asked UNESCO for a £7,000,000 grant for his space program, the Zambia National Academy of Science, Space Research and Philosophy, claiming that, “if everything went well,” he would send 12 astronauts and a cat to Mars by the end of the year.

    The UNESCO appeal was denied but this did not hamper his own space race. Nkoloso set up Zambia’s Space Academy seven miles from Lusaka in an abandoned farmhouse where the trainees dressed in overalls with abandoned British army helmets and began training.

    They would take turns climbing into 44-gallon oil drums which would be rolled down a hill, bouncing over rough ground simulating turbulence. At particularly big bumps, Nkoloso said astronauts would train for anti-gravity conditions. The rocket, a 10 × 6 foot aluminum and copper vessel, was scheduled to launch from the Independence Stadium on Zambia’s independence day in 1964.

    Unfortunately, Nkoloso’s space program never took off the ground. In addition to the lack of funding, and a cult of other difficulties, Mata Mwambwa, the 17-year old spacegirl who was scheduled to take off got pregnant and was taken out of the program by her parents.

    An article by Nkoloso.

    The Zambian Space Academy may have looked like an opportunity to mock the weird exoticism of third world ambition (as Alexis Madrigal noted at the Atlantic,Time magazine’s headline, “Zambia: Tomorrow the Moon,” was condescending). But many in Zambia found the project to be an exercise in absurd delusion, the work of a cargo cult fixated on an impossible technological dream. Recently the Spanish photographer Cristina de Middel conjured Nkoloso’s fantasy with colorful, nearly cringe-worthy recreations that split the difference between admiration and outright mockery:

    Then again, the very fact of such an audacious project in 1964 Zambia was an awesome testament to ambitions inside the new country. Since then, Africa’s space dreams have thrived in the realm of satellites (Kenya will be home to part of the world’s largest radio telescope), while spaceflight in general has drifted away from the domain of governments and into the hands of the people. They’re fed by an array of outsider space exploration programs and competitions in the vein of the Google Lunar X prize competition, which will award $30 million to any privately funded team that manages to send a robot to the moon. Cats are not necessary.

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