We all know the United States and the Soviet Union emerged from World War II and engaged in a space race that captured imaginations across the world. But they weren’t the only countries with eyes for the stars. China, of course, had cosmic aspirations and produced a fair amount of propaganda for their space program. But did you know that Zambia also had a (kind of) space program?
The unusual story starts shortly after Zambia’s independence in 1964, when an elementary science teacher by the name of Edward Makuka Nkoloso founded the National Academy of Science, Space Research and Philosophy. It was Zambia’s “first (and completely unofficial) space academy” and Nkoloso claimed that it would trounce both the Americans and the Soviets by putting someone on the moon by 1965. Unfortunately, the Academy’s methods and technology couldn’t really live up to the dream – temporary weightlessness was “simulated” by rope-swings and Nkoloso claimed to be getting his astronauts ready for space travel by rolling them down a hill in a 40-gallon oil drum “space-capsule”.
The National Academy of Science, Space Research and Philosophy died what the Zambian government referred to as a “natural death” after the United Nations turned down Nkoloso’s request for $7 million in funding. It may seem a silly story if taken at face value, but photographer Cristina De Middel took inspiration from it. Her series Afronauts aims to re-imagine Zambia’s failed program in a way that highlights its seeming incongruity as well as the beautiful enormity of the dreams behind it.
In De Middel’s words, it’s an attempt to document “an impossible dream that only lives in the pictures” and force viewers to re-evaluate why they might initially find Nkoloso’s story so funny:
“The images are beautiful and the story is pleasant at a first level, but it is built on the fact that nobody believes that Africa will ever reach the moon. It hides a very subtle critique to our position towards the whole continent and our prejudices. It’s just like saying strong words with a beautiful smile.”
See more photos from Afronaut at Wired.