Tag Archives: africa

Zambia vs the Martians: The Strange Story of a Forgotten Space Programme

In celebration of Zambia’s Independence Day, here’s a post I wrote a while back about one of the strangest space programmes in history…

 

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.

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Raiding the Lost Ark: What Indiana Jones and the Patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church have in common

20110913-140932.jpgApparently yesterday saw an anniversary screening of Raiders of the Lost Ark, hosted by Steven Spielberg and Harrison Ford. I can only assume that my invitation went missing in the post somehow, because I wasn’t there alongside Simon Pegg and Lost creator Damon Lindelof (who recently wrote a love letter to Raiders).

Raiders is an awesome film, of course, one of those movies where everything, from the direction to the story to the casting to Harrison Ford’s dysentery conspire to capture lightning in a bottle in a way that modern blockbusters often fail to manage. It’s a pure-blooded classic, from the opening scene (BOULDER!) to the ending (BOXES!) via divine retribution (GOD SMITING NAZIS!) and it’s fantastic. Ford could go mad and take the lead role in a new Catwoman movie and we’d still forgive him, simply because he’s Han AND Indy. The guy gets a pass just because of that. He’s even inspired the coolest Mr. Potato Head.

But part of the power of Raiders is that it’s rooted in religion and folklore, the stakes of the movie hanging on both the evil of the Nazis, and concepts of the Old Testament Wrath of God. The Ark has power beyonf human imagining and that raises it beyond a plot MacGuffin to something far scarier – frankly, none of the characters, good or bad, should be going anywhere near it.

This is pretty true to the Biblical accounts. Here’s the story: Moses leads the Hebrews out of slavery in Egypt after God rains down plagues on Pharoah and parts the Red Sea. Following this, God makes a covenant, or agreement, with the fledgling Israel – this is marked by the 10 Commandments and a box – ark – in which to keep them (I wrote a little about the guy who built the ark here). This Ark became a physical symbol of God’s presence with the Israelites, going before them in battle, infused by the holy power of God and impossible to touch with your bare hands.

This is where Raiders draws upon the biblical texts – there are stories of people dying after touching the Ark and, when it’s captured by the Philistines, they’re struck by a plague of, well, hemorrhoids. The Ark is not something to be messed with.

Anyway, eventually the Babylonians conquered Israel and the Ark disappears from view. No-one knows what happened to it, and it’s at this point that it passes from religious history into rumour, folklore and mythology. Raiders suggests it ended up buried in Egypt, waiting for some hubristic Nazis to dig it up. There are, however, other ideas…

One of the apocryphal (non-canonical) biblical texts, 2 Maccabees, says that the prophet Jeremiah realised that Israel was going down and buried the Ark in an unknown cave, not to be revealed until God Himself made it known.

Meanwhile, others lay claim to safeguarding the Ark, most famously Ethiopia. Apparently there is an artifact kept in the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion, Axum, that may of may not be the Ark. The Glory of Kings, a text written in 1225 to legitimise the Ethiopian royal family, says that it’s there, and all Ethiopian churches contain a replica of the Ark. Interestingly, a while ago the Patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church said he was going to reveal the truth about the Ark; the next day he changed his mind. This doesn’t exactly help quash speculation.

Then there are the Lemba people of southern Africa, who have a tradition of a mysterious but sacred artifact known as the Ngoma Lungundu, “the drum that thunders” (implying the voice of God). What may a replica of the Ark is on display in Zimbabwe, after being hidden away in a storeroom for years… Which sounds a little familiar.

It’s not just Africa making claims. At the turn of the 20th century there was even speculation that the Ark was in Ireland, with some enthusiasts starting to dig up the Hill of Tara until someone had the sense to stop them before they destroyed one of the country’s spiritual centres.

The fact is, we don’t know what happened to the Ark of Covenant, and that worked in the favour of Raiders – at the end of the film the Ark is lost again, this time to the forces of bureaucracy. Maybe it’s for the best – you don’t mess around with the infinite, to paraphrase another movie. For an archeologist, Indy doesn’t have much success with getting his finds back home – he’s not working with history, he’s working with faith, religion, the divine. “It belongs in a museum,” he says during another of his adventures, but that’s not always true – in the case of the Ark he has to close his eyes and stay out of the way. It’s not often that a movie has something visceral to say about the power of God.

Fortunately Raiders isn’t any old movie.

[tweetmeme source=”@starmanjack43”]

Gardens of Eden in Ethiopia

In northern Ethiopia, Orthodox churches believe that churches should be a home to all God’s creatures. To this end, these churches surround themselves with forests, symbolic representations of the Garden of Eden, home to a multitude of plant and animal life. But the Gardens are shrinking…

(The story linked to above, from the PLoS blog, linked to from Boing Boing, covers the efforts of scientists to tackle the environmental impact of the shrinking foredts. It’s a fascinating story, both scientifically and culturally, so please check it out.)

Posted via LiveJournal app for iPhone.

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.