To Mars! Zambia's Forgotten Space Program

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From the Annals of You Can’t Make This Stuff Up:

On Oct. 30, 1964, TIME magazine reported on the celebration of the independence of Zambia (formerly Northern Rhodesia), with its new president, Kenneth Kaunda.

But as the jubilant crowds celebrated, one man complained that the festivities were interfering with his “space program.” Edward Makuka Nkoloso informed the TIME reporter 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.

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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. (He graciously added that his missionaries would not force the native Martians to convert to Christianity.) In fact, he said, he could have achieved the conquest of Mars a mere few days after Zambia’s independence had UNESCO come through with the funding. Oh, he also called for the detention of Russian and American spies trying to steal his “space secrets” — and his cats.

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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.”

Naive? Ignorant? Sure. Especially in light of his less than dedicated volunteers: “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.

Nkoloso’s astronauts never got to Mars. Or the moon. Or even out of Lusaka. The Zambian government carefully distanced itself from his project. Even today, the US is the only country to have successfully landed a spacecraft on Mars, and has yet to spearhead a manned mission to the red planet. But while Nkoloso may have been a bit crazy, he had clearly zeroed in on the future: space travel was going to be a big deal. And he wanted Zambia to be a part of it.