To Mars! Zambia’s Forgotten Space Program

Jennifer Ouellette, Discovery News, January 5, 2011

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Edward Makuka Nkoloso informed the TIME reporter [in 1964] that his Zambian “astronauts” would beat both the US and the Soviet Union in the space race–by going to the moon, and then to Mars.

This was an unusual boast, to say the least. At the time, Zambia’s population numbered 3.6 million, with barely 1500 African-born high school graduates and less than 100 college graduates. Nkoloso himself was a grade-school science teacher, and self-appointed director of the country’s (unofficial) National Academy of Science, Space Research and Philosophy.

But he had big dreams, namely, using a catapult-inspired “firing system” to send a 10×6 aluminum and copper rocket holding ten Zambians and a 17-year-old African girl (and her cat) to Mars. He figured he could get them to the moon by 1965. All he needed was $700 million from UNESCO to fund the project.

In a newspaper editorial, Nkoloso claimed to have studied Mars for some time from telescopes at his “secret headquarters” outside Lusaka, and announced that the planet was populated by primitive natives.

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It’s hard not to like Nkoloso, based on what little we know of him today. Here’s a grade school science teacher setting up his own national space program with a small group of trainees who had to roll downhill in a 44-gallon oil drum as part of Nkoloso’s plan to simulate the sensation of rushing through space. Zero gravity? He simulated that by having them swing from the end of a long rope, cutting the rope when they reached the highest point so they went into freefall. He also taught them how to walk on their hands, “the only way humans could walk on the moon.”

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“They won’t concentrate on space flight; there’s too much love-making when they should be studying the moon,” he complained. Indeed, the much-touted girl astronaut, Matha, became pregnant and her parents brought her back to their village.

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