In 1964, a Zambian grade-school science teacher single-handedly, and unilaterally, created a space program for his country. The program involved rolling aspiring astronauts down a hill in a barrel and clipping their rope-swings at the height of their arc to simulate weightlessness. He claimed his country would not only beat both the Americans and Russians to the moon, but do it within the year.
Spanish photographer Cristina De Middel‘s photo project, Afronauts, creates a fictional documentation of these efforts. The result is a fact-bending, visually striking fantasy that includes elephant-hugging astronauts, patterned space junk, weightless cats and an engineer day-dreaming at a rusted control panel.
[pullquote]His story inspires a re-evaluation of the line between possibility and dreams[/pullquote]
“My intention is to drive the audience into reflection on what they consume as real,” says De Middel. “In the beginning most people believed everything [in the photos] was real. People asked if I had been in Zambia in the ’60s. They trusted the image but not me, which is quite funny.”
The forgotten Zambian space program was the brainchild of Edward Makuka Nkoloso, a science teacher who dared to dream big. Following independence for the central African nation in 1964, Makuka Nkoloso founded the National Academy of Science, Space Research and Philosophy, Zambia’s first (and completely unofficial) space academy.
As the self-appointed Director-General, Makuka Nkoloso announced in a 1964 op-ed, We’re Going to Mars! With a Spacegirl, Two Cats and a Missionary, that the academy would win the space race by putting a person on the moon by 1965. He even insisted that if the Zambian government and citizenry had not been distracted by independence celebrations, they’d be there already.
The Zambian government never seriously considered Nkoloso’s activities and let the program “die a natural death.” After the United Nations turned down Nkoloso’s funding request for $7 million, the program withered. Not surprising when you consider the training regime as described by Nkoloso:
“I’m getting them acclimatised to space-travel by placing them in my space-capsule every day. It’s a 40-gallon oil drum in which they sit, and I then roll them down a hill.”
Recruits also braved rope-swings. As they neared the arc of their highest swing, Nkoloso cut the rope in an attempt to replicate temporary weightlessness.
[pullquote]We’re Going to Mars! With a Spacegirl, Two Cats and a Missionary[/pullquote]
As deluded as he and his wannabe spacemen were, one can’t help but admire the sheer audacity and ambition of Nkoloso. His story inspires a re-evaluation of the line between possibility and dreams, and De Middel is his acolyte in the way she conflates invention and truth.
“Afronauts is the documentation of an impossible dream that only lives in the pictures,” says De Middel, “I rebuilt documents adapting them to my personal imagery.”
De Middel, who has diversified from news photojournalism into fine art, is always attracted to photography that avoids the usual documentary subjects and stories told in the same old ways, so it is no coincidence Afronauts has the look of b-movie film set.