Zambia’s (Often Overlooked) Space Program

By Debra Kelly on Friday, March 28, 2014
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“I have a dream, a song to sing, / To help me cope with anything.” —Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus, in “I Have a Dream”, on the ABBA album Voulez-Vous

In A Nutshell

If you think that the United States and the Soviet Union were the only ones racing to be the first into space, clearly you’re forgetting about Edward Makuka Nkoloso and his Zambia National Academy of Science, Space Research and Philosophy. With only a homemade catapult and a rocket made from copper and aluminum, Nkoloso had big dreams of putting his country on the map with a manned spaceflight to the moon, then Mars.

The Whole Bushel

In the 1960s, the Space Race was all the rage. Updates were in every newspaper and magazine, and countries scrambled to be the first in space. Usually, we think of the United States and the Soviet Union as being at the forefront of creating new technology for this cutting-edge exploration. But there was one another, often-overlooked player in the Space Race.

Edward Makuka Nkoloso was absolutely determined that his country—Zambia—was not going to be left out of the excitement of discovering this new frontier. So he formed his own space program in 1964, and set to work.

He took it upon himself to spearhead the entire operation, putting himself at the head of what he called the Zambia National Academy of Science, Space Research and Philosophy. And he thought big. Nkoloso claimed that he was not only going to beat the Americans and the Russians into space, but that his specially trained astronauts were going to be settling on Mars.

Nkoloso claimed that he had the technology to back up his theories, that he was putting his crew through rigorous training, and he was still doing his research.

The technology in question was a catapult and a vaguely rocket-shaped copper and aluminum pod that the astronauts would be riding in.

The crew was made up of 10 Zambian missionaries, a 17-year-old girl, and a couple of cats.

And the research involved spending his nights studying Mars through his telescope, which had given him insight as to what they could expect when they landed. There were people up there, he said, and even though they showed signs of primitive culture, he specified that it wasn’t the direct objective of the missionaries he was sending to convert the Martians to Christianity.

A grade school teacher, Nkoloso also came up with a complete training regimen for those that were going to be getting on the catapult-driven rocket and hurled into space. In order to allow them to adjust to what living in zero gravity would be like, Nkoloso had them swing on ropes that were cut when they reached their highest point, giving them a moment of zero gravity. They were also stuffed into oil drums and rolled down hills to practice orientating themselves, and they also had to learn to not just do and maintain handstands, but to walk on their hands.

Why? Because clearly, that’s how it’s done in outer space.

Sadly, Nkoloso’s rocket never got off the ground. It was dealt one major blow when he couldn’t get his $700 million funding that he requested from UNESCO, and another blow came when his star astronaut, the 17-year-old girl, ended up getting pregnant.

As crazy as it might seem, there’s still something endearing about his determination to put Zambia on the map as a serious contender in the space race. The newly installed Zambian government wanted nothing to do with his plans, and even his fellow countrymen thought the whole thing was absolutely crazy. But, in the end, nothing ventured, nothing gained. And, he did get an entire article written about him and his space project in Time magazine, and that’s something to hang on your wall.

Show Me The Proof

The Atlantic: Old, Weird Tech: The Zambian Space Cult of the 1960s
Discovery: To Mars! Zambia’s Forgotten Space Program