That Time Zambia Tried to Go to the Moon
Updated: Mar 24, 2021
Though ultimately it was the United States and Soviet Union who ran the Space Race, the newly independent African country of Zambia wanted to toss its hat into the ring.
Unlike other countries, Zambia had no official space program and no official head of said space program. Rather its self-appointed director of its unofficial National Academy of Science, Space Research and Philosophy was a science teacher named Edward Makuka Nkoloso. Like the heads of both the American and Soviet space programs, though, he had a very clear goal: Make Zambia the first country to reach the Moon. According to Nkoloso, this aspiration of his was inspired by a flight he took as a child and a desire to walk in the clouds. He recruited twelve astronauts he referred to as “Afronauts,“ and put them through his own series of physical and mental tests: To simulate weightlessness, they were put in an oil drum, spun around, and rolled down hills. Because he believed it was the only way to walk on the moon, Nkoloso's space cadets learned to walk on their hands. They were also required to climb and swing on a rope before it being cut to get them adjusted to the feeling of free-falling. The first to attempt the lunar voyage was a sixteen-year-old girl named Matha Mwamba. Nkoloso claimed that by the end of 1964, her along with two cats and Christian missionary would make the journey to the Moon and then on to Mars. Additionally, Nkoloso's dog Cyclops was to be flown into space to mimic the Soviet Union's Laika.
Newspaper clipping featuring an article written by Nkoloso about his space program
(image source: rmg.co.uk )
Nkoloso reportedly wrote to multiple countries asking for financial backing, including his competitors the US and USSR. Rather than receiving back anywhere from $20 million to $2 billion, he only got well wishes. At the same time, he was apparently incredibly suspicious of the US and USSR and claimed they wanted to steal his secrets to reach the Moon first. Unsurprisingly, the program fell apart shortly after. Not only was there an obvious lack of funds but also a lack of discipline- the astronauts constantly went out drinking and partying and Matha became pregnant.
With Zambia now out of the race, Nkoloso moved into politics. While I'm not sure what life had in store for him after the dissolution of the space program, no one believed he was serious about reaching space. His "astronauts" treated their training as a game or television show, and even told reporters that while they weren’t training to fly into space, they were in a rock n roll band. He never actually made it clear how serious he was about his endeavor and most media reporters figured he was just playing up to the international interest. In fact, some people mocked him for it. It is easy to discredit this tiny program especially in this day and age, but I've always believed it is a fantastic example of the Space Race reaching all parts of the globe. Although it was run by the US and USSR, the entire planet wanted their own piece of the action. Nkoloso helped his country believe they had their own unique role in the conquest of space as well.
"Afronauts" by Spanish photographer Cristina De Middel is a fictional photo essay about Nkoloso's space program. A short film with the same name was released in 2014. I don't think anyone back in 1964 would have believed that this little obscure passing breeze of space history would be remembered fifty years later.