This past winter, while exercising, I was watching some past TV shows that I had DVR’d and became captivated by the three-part American Experience broadcast of Robert Stone’s movie Chasing the Moon. Not only was it educational, but it was simply amazing to watch.
Yet, it missed one crucial part of the race to the Moon. Most people have been taught that it was a two-way race between the Soviet Union and the United States to get a man to first step on the lunar surface, but there was a third nation that has been largely overlooked in its effort to be first: the country of Zambia.
Zambia is not exactly the first country that comes to mind when one thinks about space exploration, but in the first part of the 1960s, their space program was grabbing headlines worldwide. Yet, I suspect that many people would be hard-pressed to find Zambia on a map. Located in the south-central portion of Africa, Zambia is completely land-locked. To its north is the Democratic Republic of Congo and, moving clockwise, there is Tanzania and Malawi to the east, Zimbabwe, Botswana, and a sliver of Namibia to the south, and, finally, Angola lies to Zambia’s west.
The first Europeans to set foot in the region were members of an expedition that was led Portuguese explorer Francisco de Lacerda in the late 1700s. Other Europeans would follow in the 19th century, the most famous of whom was Dr. David Livingstone, who is forever immortalized by the phrase “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?” By the late-1800s, the British South Africa Company, led by Cecil Rhodes, moved in to exploit the mineral resources of the region. By the 1920s, the region would become part of the British Empire and officially known as Northern Rhodesia.
With the outbreak of World War II, the British recruited young African men to fight in the King’s African Rifles unit. Yet, after having fought for the freedom of Europe, these same men returned home after the war to a land where they did not enjoy the same freedoms.
One of these men was Edward Festus Mukuka Nkoloso, who had been born in the northern portion of Northern Rhodesia. Having served as a sergeant in the Signal Corps, upon his return, he became a language translator for the Northern Rhodesian government and soon turned his focus to the teaching of science. After a falling out with education authorities, he decided to open his own school. The Colonial government quickly shut it down, so Nkoloso became enraged and spent the next decade fighting for his homeland’s independence. He used his knowledge of science to build bombs and other weapons, which did not go over well with authorities. As a result, Nkoloso was arrested and imprisoned between 1956 and 1957.
On October 24, 1964, colonial rule officially came to an end. The new country was named Zambia after the Zambezi River. Nkoloso secured a job as the Lusaka Rent and Ratepayers Association organizer.
Yet, his true passion was still science and he immediately established the National Academy of Science, Space Research and Philosophy. His goal was simple: to place a man on the moon before the United States or the Soviet Union did so. Their motto was “Where fate and glory lead, we are always there.”
The news of Zambia’s lunar ambitions would break in the world news just days after the country’s independence. It was now a three-way race to the Moon.
“I see the Zambia of the future as a space-age Zambia, more advanced than Russia or America. In fact, in my Academy of Sciences our thinking is already six or seven years ahead of both powers.”
When questioned as to why he wanted to go to the Moon, Nkoloso stated, “Because it is there. Is that not so?” He continued, “It is not like the clouds. I’ve been on an airplane during the war and one can fly through the clouds. It is a solid body hanging in the sky. And we are solid bodies, so we must be able to reach it. Is that not so?”
On May 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy stood before Congress and famously stated that the United States “should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth.”
Nkoloso had even loftier goals. He planned to have the first Zambian astronaut on the Moon by the end of 1965. “Imagine the prestige value this would earn for Zambia. Most Westerners don’t even know whereabouts in Africa we are.”
Just how he was going to place a man on the moon in such a short amount of time was unclear. Details of the Zambian space program were purposely shrouded in mystery. “You cannot trust anyone in a project of this magnitude,” he said. “Some of our ideas are way ahead of the Americans and Russians and these days I will not let anyone see my rocket plans.”
Nkoloso estimated that he needed £700 million ($1.96 billion, over $16 billion, adjusted for inflation) to reach the lunar surface. Having only raised $2,200 from private donors, he submitted a request to the United Nations for $19 million to finance the early phases of his work.
A training facility was set up approximately 7-miles (11.2 km) outside of the new nation’s capital of Lusaka. Lacking the funds for a full-sized rocket, their first test flight involved a spacecraft made from a long copper tube, which looked more like an elongated barrel. Without fuel, the test launch used the Mukwa propulsion system, which was basically a catapult system. That first flight landed far short of the Moon: it struggled to reach an altitude of six-feet (1.83 meters).
His initial team consisted of a woman and ten young men. Nkoloso referred to them as his Afronauts.
Afronaut #1 was Godfrey Mwango, who had completed more spaceman training than anyone else. After Mwango mentioned to a reporter, “I’m ready for the Mars flight now,” Nkoloso quickly corrected him. “The girl is going to Mars. Godfrey – You’re going to the moon.”
You heard that correctly. Nkoloso had grander plans than just the moon. He wanted a Zambian to be the first to Mars. “We have been studying the planet through telescopes at our headquarters and are now certain Mars is populated by primitive natives. Our rocket crew is ready. Specially trained spacegirl Matha Mwamba, two cats and a missionary will be launching in our first rocket.”
So, just who was Matha Mwamba? She was a 17-year-old young woman with the equivalent of an eighth-grade education and, under Nkoloso’s guidance, had been studying topics like “astrophysics, cosmography, geometry, chemistry, and astrobiology” as part of her training. Most importantly, she had been caring for ten cats.
What’s the deal with the cats?
Nkoloso explained: “Partly, they are to provide her with companionship on the long journey. But primarily they are technological accessories.” he continued, “When she arrives on Mars she will open the door of the rocket and drop the cats on the ground. If they survive, she will then see that Mars is fit for human habitation.” He then turned to Ms. Mwamba and questioned, “Is that not so?” She replied, “Ah, yes, that is so.”
Astronaut #3 was 22-year-old Ruben Simwinga, but his future destination in our solar system was still to be determined. Nkoloso would figure that out after Ms. Mwamba returned from Mars in their reusable spacecraft.
Nkoloso was bold in his vision of sending humans into space, but he didn’t see himself ever doing so. “Ah, it has been decided that I must not ascend higher than 400 feet. I am needed here to teach.”
In November 1964, a TV crew from the UK’s ITN – Independent Television News – was dispatched to Zambia to interview Nkoloso. Film of him and the astronauts in training can be easily found on YouTube.
Around the same time, the San Francisco Chronicle dispatched their veteran reporter Arthur Hoppe to do the same. The series of stories that he wrote on the Zambian space program is perhaps the best documentation that still exists of the entire operation.
Hoppe was warmly greeted by Nkoloso. “You have arrived at a most propitious moment. We have just decided which of our 12 assets will have the place of honor in the space capsule for historic moonshot. It will be Godfrey Mwango, here.” Nkoloso continued, “He has also passed the acid test of any aspiring astronaut – simulated recovery from the space capsule following a landing on water.
Mwango commented, “It was a bit fearsome. I cannot swim.”
Nkoloso continued, “Tomorrow, now that he has been chosen, we will redouble the vigorousness of his training program so that Zambia may be the first to plant her flag on the moon. We would be pleased if you would care to watch.”
Now, if you are imagining a highly sophisticated training facility like the one that NASA has, Zambia’s was the complete opposite.
Here is a bit of Hoppe’s description of Mwango’s first trip in orbit:
“‘A-okay?’ said Director Nkoloso anxiously, thumping on the steel side of the space capsule.
“‘A – okay,’ came back the game, if muffled, reply.
“‘10… 9… 8…’ The final countdown had to be interrupted twice due to technical difficulties– primarily the difficulty that Astronaut Mwango was slightly too large for the barrel and his head kept hanging out dangerously close to the ground.
“At last, Mwango scrunch himself into a suitable position and all details measured up to Director Nkoloso’s standards of perfection.
“‘Blast off!,’ cried Nkoloso, giving the space capsule a shove with his foot. “All systems go!”
Hoppe continued, “The first Zambian astronaut was successfully placed in orbit at 3:14:32 p.m. (Central African Time). Godfrey Mwango, 21, orbited 17 times down a grassy incline in a 40-gallon oil drum before coming to rest against a blue gum tree.”
Emerging from his capsule unscathed, Mwango blurted out, “Man, what a ride!”
When Hoppe asked what Nkoloso had learned from the test, he replied, “Well, for one thing, we are going to have to get a bigger barrel.”
It should be clear by now that Mwango had never left the ground and training to be a Zambian astronaut was nothing like what a typical Russian or American trainee went through. This was as basic as one could get.
At an earlier press conference, Nkoloso told reporters, “I’m getting them acclimated to space travel by placing them in my space capsule every day. It’s a 40-gallon oil drum in which they sit down and I have been rolling them down the side of 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 the feeling of free fall.”
(Sidenote: We had something like this when I was a kid. The only difference was that the rope was never cut and we always let out the Tarzan yell.)
By the end of November 1964, it was clear that Nkoloso was not going to meet his goal of placing a man on the moon any time soon. The launch date was indefinitely postponed. Nkoloso blamed this on a shortage of funds. “Technologically we are well ahead of both the Americans and Russians with the development of our turbulent propulsion engine. But due to cosmic rays, we now we find will need an engine of greater thrust and this will require more money.”
And where would this money come from? The United States government, from whom he requested “adequate supplies of liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen and £7,500,000.” ($21 million; over $175 million today.) He also approached Israeli for financial support. Both countries remained noncommittal on funding the Zambian space program, but Nkoloso remained undaunted. “I have the distinct feeling that our program will not be delayed too long for lack of funds. Yes, please, I think I may say that with the help of our many, many friends, Zambia shall be the first to the moon.”
Nkoloso’s first real rocket was to be named D-Kalu 1, in honor of their first president David Kaunda. Still without rocket fuel, he initially proposed using dynamite as a propellant, but that idea was vetoed by authorities. He turned his focus to the newer Mulolo system. “Mulolo is the word for swinging. We have tied ropes to tall trees and then swing our astronauts slowly out into space. Thus far, we have achieved a distance of ten yards. (9.1 meters) But, of course, by lengthening the rope we could go further.”
When asked by Hoppe if he was planning to use the Mulolo system to go to the moon, Nkoloso replied, “oh, no. That unfortunately has its limits. But the Zambia Flying Club is aspiring to join forces with us. They are thinking of building a glider. Then, too, we are expecting to consolidate our program with the Zambian Air Force.” When questioned as to what propulsion system they were now focused upon, he replied “Turbulent propulsion! But please, I can say no more at the present time. National prestige is involved. We must beat Russia and America to the moon. What they can do, we can do also.”
As Hoppe was preparing to head back home, Nkoloso informed him that he would be headed north to the mining community of Ndola to put Mwango through “stoical training.” He said, “There is a mining shaft up there 400 feet deep filled with water. We will throw him in.”
It wasn’t long after this that each of the Zambian astronauts would leave their space program. Nkoloso explained, “After the worldwide television showing and press publicity of our astronauts in training I received thousands of letters from foreign countries. But my spacemen thought they were film stars. They demanded payment and refused to continue with our program rolling down hills in oil drums and my special tree-swinging method of simulating space weightlessness.”
Their star astronaut, Martha Mwamba, got pregnant and her parents talked her out of continuing her space training. Nkoloso added, “Two of my best men went on a drinking spree a month ago and haven’t been seen since. Another of my assets has joined the local tribal song and dance group. He says he makes more money swinging from the top of a 40-foot pole.”
Even after Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the moon, Nkoloso refused to give up on his dream. He promised that “a Zambian will walk on the moon sooner than people think.”
Nkoloso would go on to serve as President Kaunda’s special representative to the African Liberation Center, which was the headquarters for all of the freedom movements that were working to overthrow the remaining colonized nations in Africa. He unsuccessfully ran to be elected mayor of Lusaka. Finally, in 1983, 59-year-old Nkoloso was awarded a law degree from the University of Zambia. He passed away on March 4, 1989, and was buried with presidential honors.
The jury is still out as to whether Nkoloso was serious or if it was all one big joke. Some have suggested that the Zambian space program was really a cover for the training of freedom fighters.
In 1970, Phineas Musukwa, who was the acting press officer for the Zambian embassy in Washington, DC at the time, told the press “This was publicized very widely here in America about two years ago, but he has not done anything along that line for some time. Mr. Nkoloso is actually a very well-read person. It was a big joke.”
I have to agree with his assessment. It was an ingenious prank that Nkoloso pulled on the world. It was beautifully executed and very nicely done. If nothing else, he made the world smile for a brief moment, and, quite possibly, a few people may have learned where Zambia is located.
Useless? Useful? I’ll leave that for you to decide.