Historical Randomness #13: Zambia vs the Martians

Ahh, thank you Library Angel. I was only thinking yesterday that I haven’t written a Historical Randomness post for ages; this morning I update my iPod’s news feeds (because I don’t do anything as predictable as listen to music on my iPod) and there, on Discovery’s feed is the most historically random story I’ve come across in a long time. Because, ladies and gentlemen, Zambia was once about to launch a manned mission to Mars.

Well, when I say “Zambia”, I mean “a Zambian science teacher”, and when I say “about to”, I mean “was never going to”. It seems a bit churlish to point this out, because it’s such a cool story, but this isn’t a story about a great, lost technological advancement buried in the West’s ignorance of African history, this is the story of an enthusiastic amateur, two cats and a bunch of horny potential astronauts.

The background: in 1962, African nationalist parties won Rhodesia’s elections and voted for the secession of Northern Rhodesia; two years later, on 24 October 1964, the Republic of Zambia was born. Cue much celebration, but all this partying was, for one new Zambian, a distraction from the country’s real priority – Edward Makuka Nkoloso was going to get a spacecraft to Mars by 1965, dammit. Even Time magazine noted this ambition in their coverage of the independence celebrations.

This was the sixties, of course, and space was the new frontier – Stephen King has written of a childhood memory of how the adults around him freaked out at the news that Russia had launched Sputnik, and Wernher von Braun was now using the technology used by the Nazis to bomb London in the service of America’s own Saturn programme. In 1962, JFK delivered a speech at Rice Stadium, Texas, pledging to carry out a successful round trip to the Moon by the end of the decade. It was the start of the Space Race between the USA and the Soviet Union, but in Nkoloso’s mind they were also rans, trying to steal his own secrets of space travel for their own ends. After all, they just wanted to carry out small potatoes projects like getting to the Moon by 1970; he had the far more ambitious target of landing a crew on Mars by 1965 (he outlined his aims in this editorial).

Nkoloso was a school science teacher in a country where just 0.002% of the population had a degree. Establishing a secret HQ outside the capital Lusaka, Nkoloso’s space pioneers were 11 men, one 16-year old girl, a Christian missionary and two cats. Trained by swinging off ropes, rolling down hills in oil drums and walking on their hands (and yes, footage of this has made it to Youtube, albeit complete with slappable presenters), the project was derailled by the fact that the men were more interested in copping off with the girl, and things kinda fell apart when she left the project after getting pregnant.

Despite the space programme still being in its relative post-war infancy, the idea of getting to Mars wasn’t all that out-there. The aforementioned von Braun had become the chief populiser of space exploration and in 1952 he published The Mars Project, outling his ideas for a manned mission to the red planet. Remember, this is Mars we’re talking about, and the idea that it might be inhabited has long maintained a hold on the imagination, at least since Percival Lowell popularised the idea in the 1890s that Mars was covered in artificial canals (an extension of astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli’s view that the planet was covered in channels, as opposed to canals built by Martians – blame translation from the Italian). Science fiction also built on the idea that we could be invaded by our nearest astronomical neighbour – the variois tellings of The War of the Worlds is probably the best example of this.

Nkoloso went along with the life on Mars theory, believing it to be inhabited by a primative culture – hence the inclusion of a missionary in his crew, although they vowed not to force Christianity on the natives (it’s interesting to put this approach to First Contact in the context of a country that had only just emerged from colonial rule by Britain – the colonised looking to become the colonisers, maybe, whilst not making the mistakes of the past? It’s not like HG Wells didn’t draw a link between his Martian invasion and European imperialism).

At any rate, the Zambian space programme (which, I should add, wasn’t sanctioned by the government, unsurprisingly) never took off; UNESCO wasn’t keen to stump up the £7 million worth of funding Nkoloso requested from them (although it would have been a bargain compared to the Apollo programme’s $25.4 billion); they were more interested in setting up CERN (the organisation responsible for the World Wide Web and the Large Hadron Collider) and moving the Abu Simbel temple to prevent it from being flooded by the Nile). The project, such as it was, died a death and Nkoloso went on to become president of the Ndola Ex-Servicemen’s Association.

It would be easy to laugh at the whole thing, and it is faintly farcical (although it would make a fantastic film, and someone should look into it – Film Zambia?), but perhaps it’s an example of the potency of two Big Ideas – this article links it to the power space exploration has over the human imagination, and I think there’s definitely something in that, but I guess there’s also something attractive about the opportunity for the little guy, however deluded, to stand up to the big dogs, even in the shadow of colonialism and Cold War superpower posturing. After all, the US may be the only country to have sent someone to a neighbouring celestial body, but Nkoloso shows us we don’t have to believe they’re the only ones who can do it.

So when the first Zambian makes it into space, he or she should spare a thought for Edward Nkoloso and his visions of Mars. The universe is vaster than we make it, and there’s always room for bigger dreams.

Posted via LiveJournal app for iPhone.

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