Alexis Madrigal: The Zambian Space Cult of the 1960s

Roundup: Talking About History

[Alexis Madrigal is a senior editor for A former staff writer for, he's the author of the forthcoming history of clean energy in America, Powering the Dream.]

We tend to associate space exploration with hulking rockets and massive R&D budgets, but there's a strange thread through the last fifty years of outsider space exploration. We've seen it recently in people sending cameras into space on balloons and more seriously in the Google Lunar X Prize competition. One of the big competitors there is a Romanian team that wants to float a rocket-laden balloon, which will then blast off for the moon. It sounds funny, but it's a real endeavor -- and it's going well.

On the other hand, there are some efforts that were almost entirely fanciful. The Zambian space program in 1964 was one of these. Spearheaded by Edward Makuka Nkoloso, the Zambia National Academy of Science, Space Research and Philosophy had the goal of reaching the moon before the Russians or Americans -- and he used Zambia's recent independence to vault himself to a short-lived stint in the international press.

In an editorial, Nkoloso claimed that his crew of a"specially trained spacegirl, two cats (also specially trained) and a missionary" were all ready to go for a mission to Mars. This was obviously not the case....

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