Zambia’s astronaut Nkoloso still making headlines


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.

His story inspires a re-evaluation of the line between possibility and dreams

“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.

We’re Going to Mars! With a Spacegirl, Two Cats and a Missionary

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.



  1. vote

    Going to Mars with a “space-Girl”, two cats and a missionary? Sounds odd. That was then and up til now, no one has been. Perhaps the UN should have listened to Mr Nkoloso and advanced him the $7m he needed for the project becuase who knows, he coud have landed on Mars with deafening thunder!

  2. vote

    Following independence for the central African nation in 1964, …..Is Zambia in Southern Africa or Central africa please help.. The wise come from the eastern province but they disappeared in western province..Nkoloso is bemba

    • +1

      Zambia is in between central and southern. she is at the end of central and beginning of southern. it is much referred to as southern because of its trade ties (links) with most southern African countries especially south Africa. does that answer your question?

  3. +2

    you guys ,you made my day with this story.i was stressed the whole least i found something to make me laugh and relax.

  4. vote

    LOL ….The fitness exercises for the Space program are to die for.They really give Billy Blanks a run for his money! 

  5. vote

    its great to sea and read about such people.i think in our zambian history i put him on the greatest thinkers of our history i wish he was still alive i would have loved to see him

  6. vote

    One of the smartest people of the Zambian Enterprise, he was … ahead of his time, he was too. We will eventually build on his legacy some day except the launch site will be in Zambezi District one of the best places on earth to view eclipses from … it is also one of the cheapest and easiest places for reaching escape velocity from on earth. Nkoloso was just way ahead of his time, ZASA (Zambia Aeronautical Space Agency) shall live one day, and the first spacecraft will be called NKOLOSO

  7. vote

    :) Missed opportunity to win the space race. If only we had a crust of bread and film studio… Sorry NASA. I couldn’t resist a free wind up :)

  8. vote

    if most of us africans were like nkoloso we would have contributed to science but negativity

  9. vote

    Jokes aside guys, you don’t just laugh at signs of innovation. I remember the case of a gentleman called Hachinzobo who came up with a project on how to improve operations of Zambia Railways. Politicians shut him down without investigating his idea. Then there was an UNZA Engineering student (Beriat Sunkutu) who wanted to conduct research in the effects of Electromagnetic Energy on human tissue. Our local scientists did not want to listen to his presentations. This was in 1974 if my memory is correct. Since that time, there has been a lot of research in Electromagnetics and us as humans have benfited from such work, Just imagine where Zambia would be if we supported each other in these research initiatives.Stay united and work hard to develop Zambia. One Zambia One Nation.

  10. vote

    Nkoloso was talking about Mars when everyone talking about the moon, and currently there are privately funded programs looking at going to Mars close to fifty (50) years after he started his space program. The arrival of three astronauts at the ISS on Nov. 2, 2000, sparked one NASA official to remark, “We’re going into space forever with people first circling this globe, and then we’re going to Mars….”

  11. +1

    My word !! what a legend this fellow is. Miles ahead of today’s useless Zambian engineers being churned by an equally useless University, all they know is conning government by doing shody road works and drinking na maule.

  12. vote

    I like his Hitler look. If only our scientists and engineers could dream this big. We may have at least invented the bungee jump!

  13. vote

    Col Mukuka Nkoloso.I remember the old man visiting Napsa offices znpf then glad in a full ceremonial army uniform as an honorary Col,KK bestowed on him in the late 80s.

  14. vote

    what happen to visionary Zambians like these, I am so proud of these “crackpots”. everything starts with a dream…remember the famous speech by Martin L. King “I have a dream…., today the USA has a black president” I can appreciate he was only a teacher and hope he taught many pupils to think outside the box…dream big and act on it even if you fail to achieve the dream at least you may have laid the foundations for future generations to build on…In 1964 Korea was like us today the have a space program “visionaries”  

  15. vote

    It shocks to learn that  we had such brainy people in Zambia but why doesnt the system allow for people to do on constructive projects and not on Rural research programs #21 mentions some people who had projects but later where thought of as mad scientists, politicians please wake up and support these people and not just thinking of what you will get from the change coming from the road projects, Lets develop this country PLEASE………!!!!!

  16. vote

    Children, you see what happens when you smoke bad weed? The effects of that ‘high’ are long term. Your dilusional mind becomes the norm even after so many years…case in point: Mr. Nkoloso.
    In short, DO NOT SMOKE WEED (chamba, ibange, dobo), period!

  17. vote

    Where is Mr. Nkoloso now? Indeed Zambia has not been very supportive to dreamers! I remember I had a friend at the National Scientic Research of Zambia who was great in research and they had many programs but poor funding cost them. Also more attention was being given to “Uwabuta” from outside than the locals! U.S.A. and other developed countries give money to dreamers in their countries and you now can see the result. We should encourage dreamers and both the private and GRZ must fund innovative projects! Go Zambia, go!

    • vote

      Mr Nkoloso is late. After the space program failed, he built a one engine plane. During the flight test, the plane crashed on landing and Mr Nkoloso died in that crash. The Man was a genius. MHSRP.

  18. vote

    80% of Zambians are pessimistic and have negative attitudes. It will never help us. We are negative towards ourselves, negative over our country and negative against one another our governments operate 95% in the negative. that is why most Africans run away from their countries and go to the west where they say it is clean. When they are in their own country they are the ones that throw rubbish anywhere and then complain about it. Keep Zambia clean exists only on papers, cars and bill boards. You find a vehicle written; KEEP ZAMBIA CLEAN, and it is parked in middle of heaps of trash. What a contrast. We have to change the way we think and look at things

  19. vote


  20. vote

    d man has made name for his self. is better to try and fail than not to try at all. go back to d history of all d great inventions, u will be shocked on how crude they started. only fools will mock this great hero.

  21. vote

    d man has made name for him self. is better to try and fail than not to try at all. go back to d history of all d great inventions, u will be shocked on how crude they started. only fools will mock this great hero.

  22. vote

    lam realy sorry for what the government did,if they had suported this man his project could have been accomplished.All zambians lets pray together to God someone will come and start from where Edward Mukuka Festus Nkoloso ended.

  23. vote

    I can’t believe that sane people that can read and write seriously think this lunatic had any chance of getting more than 10 metres off the ground. Come on! Get real.