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The Zambian Space Programme of 1962 December 4, 2011

Author: Beach Combing | in : Contemporary , trackback

One of the problems of looking for the bizarre in history is that, after a while, you’ve read everything before: mermaid funerals in the Hebrides, tick; bats used in bombs against Japan, tick; Roman legionaries in China, tick… But then every so often something comes along that is fresh and that has completely escaped your notice and suddenly life feels worth living again. That, anyway, was the emotion that Beachcombing had when he read last week about Zambia’s attempt in the early 1960s to enter the space race. Beach writes ‘Zambia’ that would be wild enough, but actually this was Edward Makuka Nkoloso, a Zambian high school science teacher who became head of the National Academy of Science, Space Research and Philosophy, an organisation that naturally EMN founded.

His ten Zambian astronauts and a seventeen-year-old African girl are poised for the countdown.  [EMN] said: ‘I’ll have my first Zambian astronaut on the moon by 1965. My spacemen are ready, but we’re having a few difficulties…we are using my own firing system, derived from the catapult.’ Mr. Nkoloso continued: ‘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. But I’ve had trouble with my space-men and space-women. They won’t concentrate on space-flight; there’s too much love-making when they should be studying the moon. Matha Mwamba, the seventeen-year-old girl who had been chosen to be the first coloured woman on Mars, has also to feed her ten cats, who will be her companions on the long space flight… I’m getting [the astronauts] acclimatised 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.’

Nkoloso was, in short, one of those wonderful eccentrics who usually only appear after three or four generations of middle class parliamentary democracy, preferably with what Beachcombing likes to think of, with apologies to Weber, as the Protestant Mad Ethic somewhere in the background. And yet here in Africa, in that wonderful glow of colonial freedom, before everything went to hell in the 1970s and the 1980s, was the kind of genius that would not have gone amiss riding through the English shires in the 1700s in a turquoise stage coach, raving about Atlantis and Romish spies.

Nkoloso revealed, for example, that he had been watching Mars from his ‘secret headquarters’ and had discovered that the planet was peopled by a strange race of primitive savages. He guaranteed, however, that he would not force their conversion, which was gracious of him. Perhaps memories of cack-handed Anglican missionaries in his part of Africa?

Enjoy this contemporary video that ends with the unnecessarily cruel words: ‘to most Zambians these people are just a bunch of crackpots and from what I’ve seen today I’m inclined to agree’.

What happened to Nkoloso? Beachcombing has been unable to find out. Edward, if you (or any of your astronauts) are still out there, Beach would love to hear from you: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com. And if you are not he would gladly contribute to a plaque somewhere prominent on the other side of the equator.  

Africa, of course, has since entered the space race: Nigeria has several satellites in orbit. However, there are still, it seems, amateur African attempts. The most recent has appeared in Uganda and has recently been celebrated by the Daily Mail. ‘[Chris NSamba] firmly believes it will launch in the next ‘four to six years’. But given the condition of his project at the moment, he might be advised to buy a gigantic rubber band to help it on its way.’ Etc etc.

Beach cannot find his old file on amateur space launches though he has happy memories of a video of the disastrous launch of Starchaser 3 in 1998 on Dartmoor. Does anyone know where to find this? Invisible has also recently put him onto catastrophic attempts to combine rocket science and the postal service in Scotland in the 1930s: ‘Some letters singed from the blasts were salvaged –  to be posted in the normal way or coveted by collectors (which they are to this day). But little could be salvaged of Zucker’s life. Having been found ‘a threat to the income of the post office and the security of the country’, he was deported –  and immediately arrested by the Germans on suspicion of collaboration with Britain. He was forbidden to make further rocket experiments after release and became a furniture dealer. But before dying in 1985, he managed to dabble again in rocketry –  briefly and fatally, for three people who got in the way of his launcher‘.

Happy times…

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11/12/2011: David B writes in with this ‘Reading your article on The Zambian Space Programme of 1962 I was reminded of the Idi Amin space program. What sticks in my mind are pictures of a space ship fashioned from garbage cans and the official comment when the projected launch date came and went that ‘The white man has stolen the magic‘.’ Beach would love to know more. Thanks David!!!