Humanity has been fascinated by the exploration and colonization of Mars for decades. In the last few years, space agencies and private businesses from several nations have invested significantly in technology and research to make this goal a reality.
These private companies and government agencies are still at an early stage of their journey to explore and establish settlements on the red planet.
But the dream to reach Mars can be traced back to the 1960s, a pivotal period in space exploration history when the United States and the Soviet Union were locked in a fierce space race.
During this intense period, an unexpected player emerged as a self-proclaimed contender in the quest for space exploration. In Zambia, a newly independent landlocked African country, a schoolteacher named Edward Mukuka Nkoloso and his group of “Afronauts” captured the world’s attention.
Their ambitious plan was to achieve the remarkable feat of being the first to reach both the Moon and Mars.
On October 30, 1964, TIME magazine covered the celebration of Zambia’s independence (previously known as Northern Rhodesia) and featured the country’s new president, Kenneth Kaunda.
However, Nkoloso expressed dissatisfaction, saying the celebration hindered his “space program.”
Nkoloso informed the TIME reporter that his Zambian Afronauts would outpace both the United States and the Soviet Union in the space race by achieving the extraordinary feat of reaching the moon and then proceeding to Mars.
It was an audacious assertion. At the time, Zambia’s population numbered 3.6 million, and the nation had scarce resources in terms of education and technical expertise.
With only around 1500 African-born high school graduates and less than 100 college graduates, venturing into space seemed like an improbable endeavor.
Amidst these limitations, Nkoloso, a science teacher, took it upon himself to assume the director role for Zambia’s unofficial National Academy of Science, Space Research, and Philosophy.
Nkoloso’s dreams were nothing short of grandiose. He envisioned a catapult-inspired “firing system” that would propel a 10×6 aluminum and copper rocket, carrying ten Zambians and a 17-year-old African girl (along with two cats), all the way to Mars.
He boldly claimed that he could achieve a lunar mission by 1965 if UNESCO provided the necessary funding of $700 million for his project.
To bolster his ambitions, Nkoloso made further statements through a newspaper editorial. He claimed that he had been studying Mars diligently through telescopes at his “secret headquarters” located outside Lusaka, suggesting that primitive natives inhabited the planet.
However, he also said his proposed mission would not impose Christianity upon the Martian natives.
However, alongside these extraordinary claims, he called for the detention of Russian and American spies allegedly attempting to steal his “space secrets” and cats.
Use Of Old, Weird Tech
In preparation for training the “Afronauts,” makeshift facilities were established to simulate the sensations of weightlessness and space travel.
One such training method involved placing trainees inside a 200-liter oil drum and rolling it down a rough surface, providing them with an approximation of weightlessness experienced during space travel and reentry. Additionally, a tire swing was utilized to simulate weightlessness further.
The space rocket, named “D-Kalu,” had a distinctive drum-shaped design and was constructed using aluminum and copper. According to Nkoloso, the vessel was deemed space-worthy, emphasizing his belief in the feasibility of his ambitious space mission.
The anticipated launch date was initially scheduled for October 24, 1964, but it faced denial of permission due to being deemed inappropriate.
Apart from seeking funding from UNESCO, it is reported that Nkoloso also requested 1.9 billion Zambian pounds from private foreign sources to finance his ambitious space project.
However, lacking resources was not the sole obstacle that dashed his dreams. Nkoloso encountered a more significant challenge concerning his trainees, who were losing their focus and dedication to the mission.
He lamented that there was too much romantic involvement among the trainees at the headquarters, where they were supposed to be focused on studying the moon and preparing for space travel.
“They won’t concentrate on space flight; there’s too much love-making when they should be studying the moon,” he said.
Unfortunately, a significant setback occurred when his “space girl” became pregnant. This unexpected development disrupted his plans. He also encountered further setbacks as other aspiring astronauts abandoned the project, reportedly engaging in drinking sprees and choosing not to return or diverting their interests to tribal song and dance.
On the other hand, the Zambian government deliberately kept a distance from his project. Interestingly, Nkoloso alleged that he could have conquered Mars shortly after Zambia’s independence had UNESCO promptly provided the funding he sought.
Nkoloso’s efforts in space travel could have easily been forgotten and relegated to a curious footnote in history if not for artists like Cristina de Middel. Her work brought renewed attention to his story and helped preserve his audacious dreams for posterity.
In 2012, de Middel unveiled a captivating series of photographs titled ‘Afronauts,’ the same name Nkoloso bestowed upon his astronauts.
Through her artistry, she breathed new life into the tale, offering a renewed perspective and artistic vision of Nkoloso’s ambitions in space exploration.
Upon stumbling the forgotten Zambian Space Program in a list of failed experiments, de Middel felt an undeniable urge to capture and convey its essence. She took it upon herself to self-publish the ‘Afronauts’ photobook, which garnered praise and recognition.
Her work gained immense popularity, leading to a noteworthy development as Nigeria’s space program reached out to her, extending an invitation to the country for speaking engagements.
Additionally, her photobook found widespread exhibition in numerous African nations, further solidifying her impact and recognition in the region.
Having worked as a photojournalist initially, de Middel’s art straddled the boundaries between reality and imagination, meticulously exploring the interplay between photography and truth.
The ‘Afronauts’ photo book was often described as a ‘fictional record’ of the Zambian Space Program. The images portrayed a Moon landing with a unique African twist, skillfully capturing the homemade atmosphere of Nkoloso’s ambitious project.
The helmets, creatively fashioned from old glass domes used in street lamps, and the handcrafted spacesuits, made by de Middel’s 92-year-old grandmother, stood in stark contrast to the sleek and polished images commonly associated with NASA and space exploration.
That being said, some may have considered Nkoloso’s ideas eccentric, but his vision was remarkably prescient—he had honed in on the future: space travel was destined to become a significant phenomenon. Undeterred by skepticism, he ardently wished for Zambia to have a stake in this groundbreaking endeavor.