Tag Archives: aliens

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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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.

Writer’s Block: Children of the sun

Actually, according to local folklore, in 1979 aliens landed about six miles from me, in Rowley Regis, and a witness gave them all mince pies, so baked goods may be an appropriate gift to present to any extraterrestrial visitors. I think any aliens that like cake are potential friends and allies, and far better than aliens that, say, want to eat our livers.

As for how aliens would regard our society, it’s a big question – which society, for a start? They might have an affinity for modern western culture, or the long view of Chinese history, or native American tribal societies, or… Given that the arrival of aliens would be one of the most influential and earth-shattering events in human history, the way in which they relate to any of our particular human societies could lead to a total shift in global politics, with existing superpowers possibly being pushed aside if the aliens had a greater affinity for, say, Australian Aboriginies.

That’s a bit of an anthropomorphic way of looking at the question, of course, because if they were truly alien then we’d struggle to even comprehend each other, let alone communicate or develop alliances. How would either side go about making contact when we’re not talking about different human societies that at least have a shared physiology to help things along (we couldn’t exactly smile at aliens and expect them to know what that means, because they might not even have mouths. Although that would stop them eating our livers).

And then, then, who would we send out to make first contact? The military? Probably gives the wrong impression. Politicians? Okay, which ones? Scientists, theologians, entertainers? Male or female? Young or old? President Obama, David Cameron, the Pope, Nelson Mandela, Stephen Hawking, Bono, William Shatner?

Should we send anyone? Remember War of the Worlds – one virus in the wrong place and we’ve given an alien ambassador Swine Flu. That’s not going to go down well in the mothership. This isn’t sci-fi paranoia – this is pretty much what happens when civilisations run into each other for the first time, mixing up germs that had previously been isolated.

But then if they landed in my backyard, I’d be on the frontline of the first contact between humanity and a sentient alien race. Me, Matt, from Dudley. I don’t think I’m ready for that responsibility. I’d be tempted to ask them to mow my lawn with a laser or something. My sole experience in this sort of thing is watching sci-fi TV shows, and that never ends well for the aliens. For my generation, Han Shot First. Who would I call? The police? The local Council? The RAF, the Government? How do I get in touch with the Government anyway, my MP? Which department is in charge of this sort of thing, the Foreign Office? Ministry of Defence? The UK Border Agency?

It also doesn’t help that my stupid mobile phone probably wouldn’t get a signal.

So, all in all, I’d like to think I’d be friendly and welcoming, but there’s too much at stake, and if I sneezed I could kill them all. There’s only one solution to this, and that is to draft my house’s very own First Contact Protocols (to go alongside the Zombie Apocalypse Contingency Plan). This may seem over-the-top, but no-one else seems to have a plan in place. They’re leaving the ball in my court. Well, fine. I can handle it.

I for one welcome our new alien overlords!

Posted via LiveJournal app for iPhone.

Epic U.N. Fail

When I first heard that the UN had appointed an ambassador to do the greetings in the event of visitors arriving from another planet I thought it was the coolest news story for a long time. Imagine then my disappointment when it turned out the story apparently wasn’t true.

Still, I guess the post’s still open….

Stephen Hawking turns off the lights, pretends to be out

Stone-cold genius and Star Trek: The Next Generation actor Dr. Stephen Hawking has said that, in the event of us discovering extraterrestrial life, we shouldn’t make contact. He may have a point – the comparison he uses is that of Christopher Columbus first encountering Native Americans, and let’s face it, that could have gone better. Some people disagree with him, of course (the Bad Astronomer for one, and Carl Sagan was pretty keen on saying hello to anyone who might be out there), but the thing is…. It’s too late.

For want of a better starting point, let’s go back about 60 years. That’s roughly how long we’ve been pumping TV signals into space, so it’s not like we’ve been particularly quiet. On top of that we’ve actively been poking around looking for life out there, so Hawking might be too late in warning us about alien death lizards. Or whatever.

The idea that there’s life beyond Earth has been around for a while. Various world religions have or had some view on there being other worlds out there with their own inhabitants, and now there’s an obscure branch of study looking into the subject (Exotheology, in which  C.S. Lewis dabbled in a few essays and the Space Trilogy). It’s a big subject, so let’s narrow it down to when the idea of extraterrestrial life entered popular consciousness in a big way – 1947.

1947 was the year of the Roswell incident and the Kenneth Arnold UFO sighting that coined the phrase ‘flying saucer’; in the years that followed, the Contactees movement kept the idea of us being visited by aliens in the public eye, and Erich von Daniken‘s 1968 book  Chariots of the Gods?  suggested that such vistations had been going on for millennia (although frankly the book’s most important impact was inspiring Battlestar Galactica). Okay, so it was craziness with a side order of crazy, but that’s the context. Into this, big name scientists were also considering the issue.  In 1950, Enrico Fermi came up with the Fermi Paradox (basically, the universe is so big you’d expect there to be life out there – so where is it?), but it was 1961 when astrophysicist Frank Drake came up with a formula that estimated the potential number of extraterrestrial civilisations we could come into contact with. This was the Drake Equation and it formed the basis for the SETI (Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence) project – and from 1999 you could join in with the search yourself using their SETI@home screensaver, a distributed computing project that uses the downtime of domestic PCs to sift through reams of data. So when it’s announced that FluffyBunny461 has discovered the Morglocks, that’s why.

Of course, that’s just looking for signals, and if either our or the aliens’ antenna are facing the wrong direction we’re not going to get anything. That’s the potential problem with the Arecibo Message, a signal beamed towards the M13 star cluster in 1974. It was largely an exercise in showing off the capabilities of the revamped Arecibo Radio Telescope – to the extent that by the time the signal reaches its destination, the star will have moved.

But hey, we need to cover all the bases, so not only are we sending signals out there, we’re also shooting physical evidence of our whereabouts into space. In 1972/3, the Pioneer 10 and 11 probes carried plaques giving information about our location and what we look like to any alien civilisation that might stumble across them. This was followed up by the Golden Records (insert MP3 joke here) put on board the Voyager probes, discs that contained sounds and greetings from Earth, including a message from then-President Jimmy Carter: "This is a present from a small, distant world, a token of our sounds, our science, our images, our music, our thoughts and our feelings. We are attempting to survive our time so we may live into yours."

So while Stephen Hawking may be wise to sound a warning, it’s already too late. But then why be so pessimistic? They might be friendly. Or more likely, just plain incomprehensible. Or, even more likely, microbial.

And anyway, they’re probably picking up the adventures of Captain Kirk and the first Doctor right around now. If you were an alien, would YOU mess with those guys….?