When a pilot refused to stop the plane so that he could get out and walk on the clouds, Zambia’s Edward Makuka Nkoloso decided to enter the space race. He was bent on achieving this dream so much so that in October 1964 when his country Zambia gained independence with celebrations across all corners of the country, he could not be bothered. Why? The cheers were interfering with his space program.
At the height of the space race between the Soviet Union and the United States, schoolteacher Nkoloso planned on sending Zambians he had trained – called “afronauts” – to the moon, and then to Mars.
Nkoloso told TIME magazine at the time that he was confident of beating both the U.S. and the Soviet Union in the space race, in what many felt was a “jester” or a “publicity stunt.”
Indeed, Zambia at the time had only a few African-born high school graduates and less than 100 college graduates, according to a report. Nkoloso was only a grade-school science teacher who had appointed himself the director of the country’s unofficial space academy – the National Academy of Science, Space Research and Philosophy.
And he was confident of his space plans that included sending a woman known as Matha, two cats and a missionary to Mars by the end of 1964. He also boasted that he could get his team of “afronauts” to the moon by 1965. His mission to Mars could have even arrived earlier – just some days after Zambia’s independence – had UNESCO provided him with the $700 million funding he needed for the project, he said.
“To really get going we need about seven hundred million pounds. It sounds a lot of money, but imagine the prestige value it would earn for Zambia,” he said at the time.
For someone who claimed to have studied Mars for some time from telescopes, Nkoloso stressed that the planet was “populated by primitive natives”, even though he said he warned his missionaries not to force the native Martians to convert to Christianity.
In a statement about his training program for his team, Nkoloso said: “I’m getting them acclimatized to space-travel by placing them in my space-capsule every day. It’s a 40-gallon oil drum in which they sit, and I then roll them down a hill. This gives them the feeling of rushing through space. I also make them swing from the end of a long rope. When they reach the highest point, I cut the rope – this produces a feeling of free fall.”
What is more, Nkoloso taught his team how to walk on their hands, “the only way humans could walk on the moon.”
“Some people think I’m crazy,” Nkoloso told the Associated Press at the time. “But I’ll be laughing the day I plant Zambia’s flag on the moon.”
Nkoloso’s astronauts never got to Mars or the moon though, as you may have fathomed. Apart from the lack of funds and the Zambian government not taking him seriously, Nkoloso once complained that his team was not really dedicated. “My spacemen thought they were film stars. They demanded payment,” Nkoloso told Associated Press in August 1965.
He had earlier complained that “there’s too much love-making when they should be studying the moon.” As a matter of fact, the famous Matha got pregnant and left the program. Left with no funding, for which Nkoloso blamed “those imperialist neocolonialists” who he believed were “scared of Zambia’s space knowledge,” his idea died a natural death.
He, however, made international headlines with his “weird” program and was interviewed by scores of media organizations.
Today, Nkoloso is most famous in Zambia as a revolutionary, having been drafted to serve in the Second World War for the British as a member of the Northern Rhodesian Regiment, according to a report by The New Yorker.
And even though his ambitious space program never got off the ground, it gave rise to the numerous space programs that Africa boasts today.
The following is a video about Nkoloso’s space program.