Old, Weird Tech: The Zambian Space Cult of the 1960s

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We tend to associate space exploration with hulking rockets and massive R&D budgets, but there's a strange thread through the last fifty years of outsider space exploration. We've seen it recently in people sending cameras into space on balloons and more seriously in the Google Lunar X Prize competition. One of the big competitors there is a Romanian team that wants to float a rocket-laden balloon, which will then blast off for the moon. It sounds funny, but it's a real endeavor -- and it's going well.

On the other hand, there are some efforts that were almost entirely fanciful. The Zambian space program in 1964 was one of these. Spearheaded by Edward Makuka Nkoloso, the Zambia National Academy of Science, Space Research and Philosophy had the goal of reaching the moon before the Russians or Americans -- and he used Zambia's recent independence to vault himself to a short-lived stint in the international press.

In an editorial, Nkoloso claimed that his crew of a "specially trained spacegirl, two cats (also specially trained) and a missionary" were all ready to go for a mission to Mars. This was obviously not the case.

Time magazine's description of the Academy, which was (obviously) not an official part of the new Zambian government, reads like a bizarre joke: "Nkoloso is training twelve Zambian astronauts, including a curvaceous 16-year-old girl, by spinning them around a tree in an oil drum and teaching them to walk on their hands, 'the only way humans can walk on the moon.'"

Maybe we could write off the press coverage as the sort of "Ain't it Weird!" kind of coverage that everyone loves. But that Time note was gratuitously tacked onto the end of an otherwise straight and serious narration of the country's independence celebration. In some hands, Nkoloso's "program" was a backdoor way for Westerners to mock African aspirations in the wake of the very real upheavals caused by independence. Time even ironically headlined its article, "Tomorrow the Moon."

But not all news agencies tried to tie the nation's independence to the ravings of some random guy. Sky Broadcasting's reporter acknowledged that the "space program" was not a reflection of the nation. "To most Zambians, these people are just a bunch of crackpots," he said, "and from what I have seen today, I'm inclined to agree."

Nkoloso, at least from the evidence we have to go on, was something closer to a cargo cult leader than a scientist. What remains fascinating to us today is that he drew on the sublimity of space travel -- not religious sentiment -- to win friends and influence people. It's a reminder of the power that space travel had in the popular imagination of the 1960s.

Explore the complete Old, Weird Tech archive.

Hat tip to Tim Maly.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer calls Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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