Still from Frances Bodomo’s Afronauts, which was screened at Sundance 2014.

A new spin on the 419 email scam sees a “wealthy Nigerian astronaut”, Air Force Major Abacha Tunde, stuck on a secret Soviet space station. The cosmonaut has apparently been stuck in space for over 26 years. “He is in good humour,” writes his earthbound intermediary (who has evidently not seen Interstellar). Inevitably, Air Force Major Tunde’s money is tied up in Lagos and he needs you to send $3 million so he can get home.

This farce is almost as odd as Africa’s actual history with space….

Cosmic Evangelism and Zambia’s bizarre plan to beat America in the space race

In 1960, Zambian teacher Edward Festus Mukuka Nkoloso founded the Zambia National Academy of Science, Space Research and Philosophy. He vowed that his country would beat America in the Space Race. Between 1960 and 1970, Nkoloso’s programme sought to launch a rocket that would send 17-year-old Matha Mwambwa and two cats to the moon. There were also plans for a trip to Mars.

Photo: CNTV

His trainee astronauts were put through a number of odd exercises on an abandoned farm outside Lusaka, including being rolled down hills in barrels to get used to travelling through space and walking on their hands — Nkoloso assured them that his was the only way to walk on the moon.

Another of Nkoloso’s goals was to establish a Chistian ministry for the supposed “primitive” martians they would encounter, in hope that Zambia would become the “controllers of the Seventh Heaven of interstellar space”.

Nkoloso’s ludicrously ambitious plan was never realised as the United Nations refused him the $700 million needed to fund a legitimate space programme.

Today, nobody seems to know what happened to Nkoloso or his space explorers. Apparently, the 17-year-old “space girl” Martha Mwambwa got pregnant and was removed from the programme by her parents. The Zambian government distanced itself from Nkoloso’s endeavour.

Although it would be quick to dismiss Nkoloso as either a crazy fool or a shyster knowingly attempting to con his way into millions, there is another way of looking at it. The world didn’t believe in Nkoloso, he belived in himself. He was an ambitious man who had a nationalistic dream and was doing something to realise it, both for himself and for his country.

Recently, more people have taken an interest in Nkoloso’s story. In 2010, Spanish photographer Cristina De Middel created a photobook inspired by the Zambian space programme; and in 2014, Ghanaian filmmaker Frances Bodomo‘s Afronauts was released.

For De Middel, Nkoloso had a fascination for the universe that we all share. “Asking if we’re alone, looking at the stars, making metaphysical questions. That is a universal feeling and it doesn’t belong to the people who can actually have the technology to go to the moon; it’s everywhere,” she said.

Similarly, Afronauts follows “the scientific zeitgeist from the perspective of those who do not have access to it.”

Photo: Cristina de Middel from the series The Afronauts.

You kind of have to hand it to Nkoloso. And anyway, this was’t the only time something like this happened on the continent: In 1971, notorious President Idi Amin came to power in Uganda. At the time, the international Space Race had reached a climax with the Apollo lunar landings. Amin — influenced by Nkoloso? — announced an impossibly optimistic Ugandan space programme. It never progressed beyond an attempt at astronaut training on an obstacle course made up of used car tires.

Space Travel Today in Africa

Africa has come along way from rolling barrels and obstacle courses. Last year Ethiopia launched its first space program in East Africa: The privately-funded space station includes two large telescopes and a spectrograph that measures wavelengths of electromagnetic radiation. The goal is to provide a facility in which to train local astronomers, scientists, and engineers, and establish a local culture of innovation.

“We are using space applications in everyday activities, for mobile phones, weather — space applications are fundamental,” said Kelali Adhana, the International Astronomical Union chief for East Africa, who is based in Ethiopia. “We cannot postpone it, otherwise we allow ourselves to live in poverty.”

South African part-time DJ Mandla Maseko was the first black African in space. He blasted off a little over five months ago after winning the Axe Apollo Space Academy competition. At the time, neither he nor any of his family, who come from the Mabopane Township near Pretoria, had ever left South Africa.


Historically, attempts at space travel on the African continent have been a little unconventional and unsupported — and maybe rightly so: preaching religion to martians? — but at the time of these early initiatives, individuals like Nkoloso showed that there were people in Africa who had the tenacity and the drive to, well, reach for the stars. This has subsequently paved the way for new innovations and endeavours regarding space travel on the continent.

Origianlly published on Dont Party

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