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Speculations… Zambia’s Minister of Space

I’ve been obsessed with space flight since I was a child. I’ve wanted to be an astronaut since as far back as I can remember. A large part of my library consists of books about the history of NASA and the Russian Aviation and Space Agency/Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos), the history of rocket technology and space flight vehicles. Admittedly, the United States and the former Soviet Union, the most well-funded and advanced space programs in history, have dominated my mind. However, recently, a short article from Wired magazine, has widened my perception of space flight history. It highlights the fictionalized photography of Spaniard, Cristina De Middel, who in her new project, Afronauts, has interpreted the work of the obscure Zambian science teacher, Edward Makuka Nkoloso and his efforts to bring Zambia, one step closer to the stars. From the little I have gathered together about Nkoloso and his space program in Zambia, his story just seems to explode with not just the excitement of the human imagination, but also with the sad reality of the agency of colonialism.

“I see Zambia of the future as a space-age Zambia, more advanced than Russia or America.” Nkoloso, Zambi’s self-appointed Minister of Space, wrote in an editorial piece in the New York Times in 1964. From the outset, Nkoloso’s plans were big. His first missions included the Moon and Mars, his trainees were made up of twelve astronauts-in-training, two cats and a missionary.

Training of the astronauts included rolling down a hill inside a 40 gallon oil drum, which Nkoloso concluded would prepare them for the disorientation of hurtling through space. It also included swinging from ropes of which Nkoloso would cut at their apex so that the trainees could experience the feeling of a free fall. The rocket for the mission was fashioned out of a ten foot drum made from aluminum and copper.

As short-sighted and unrealistic as this all sounds on the surface, Nkoloso’s work is reminiscent of the early pioneers of flight, rocket technology and eventually space flight, in that his dream was structured towards a complicated goal. His real role was as an advocate for the idea of a Zambian space flight program. His ideas about how to simulate the experience of traveling through space were crude and lacked the support of experts in various specializations, as well as lacked the advantage of funding to support his program, but he also worked towards alleviating that issue too. At one point he wrote to UNESCO, requesting a grant of L7,000,000 for his space program. His request was never answered.

In our minds, Nkoloso’s efforts may seem ridiculous, but I believe it was his circumstance that was ridiculous. His country had been under British rule since 1889 and by the time of independence, the country were seriously underdeveloped. In my opinion, Nkoloso had the courage to imagine a radically different, though speculative future for his country, with it freed from the constraints of colonialism. He connected his work to a new vision of Zambia, by citing that their real independence would begin with the blast of their first rocket into space, his astronaut team included men and women, with even a teenage girl, Matha Mwamba, being chosen as the first person to set foot on Mars, and he was an advocate of young people taking up careers in science by entering his academy. And though, some of his ideas are questionable like including missionaries on the Mars mission (while warning them against proselytizing their theology to the “Martians”) and some un-democratic, like indefinitely detaining without trial, what he called American and Soviet spies in his country, Nkoloso seemed to be a man whose thoughts were unrestrained.

Edward Makuka Nkoloso’s story strikes me as one of the ultimate dreamer.