The Strange Case of the Zambian Space Program

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Edward Makuka was an optimist. Beginning in 1964, Makuka headed up a space program started by newly-independent Zambia – a program designed to land an African on the Moon, and catch up to the Soviet Union and the United States in the space race.

After serving with the British in World War II, Makuka became a grade school teacher. After the British authorities shut down his school, he joined the resistance movement, going on to serve in Zambia’s Constitutional Convention. In 1960 he founded the Zambia National Academy of Science, Space Research and Philosophy.

The program had a singular goal – sending one girl, 17-year old Matha Mwambwa and two cats to the Moon. Future plans included a trip to Mars. He coined the term “Afronauts,” and trained his crew members on an abandoned farm where they would be rolled down a hill in an oil drum.

The Zambian rocket was named D-Kalu 1, and was 10 feet by 6 feet. Liftoff was originally set for October 24, 1964, Zambia’s independence day.

In the end, the program failed due to poor funding, and the pregnancy of the primary crew member. Claims were made that the rocket had been sabotaged.

Details of the Zambia Space Program from 1964
Details of the Zambia Space Program from 1964

And then the story becomes strange.

Enter photographer Christina De Middel. A documentary photographer and artist based in London, De Middel ran across the story of the Afronauts, and thought it warranted a face. She gave it one.

“As a journalist I have always been attracted by the eccentric lines of storytelling – avoiding the same old subjects told in the same old ways,” De Middel says on her Afronauts Blog. “Afronauts is based on the documentation of an impossible dream that only lives in the pictures. I start from a fact that took place 50 years ago and rebuild the documents, adapting them to my personal imagery.”

I ran across the photographs about two years ago, and still find them to be a little corner of awesome.


The story continues. De Middel self-published a book containing the photos, along with her vision of the Afronauts. The book is now sold out, and as of this writing is being offered second hand for $1,500 and up. New copies are selling for $2,000 to $3,000. In the book De Middel combines her photographs with drawings and maps – her unique interpretation of the Zambia Space Program.


And when you thought the story of the Afronauts was at an end, enter Frances Bodomo. A filmmaker from Ghana and an NYU Film School graduate, Frances has kept the story of the Zambian Space Program alive through “The Afronauts,” a 2014 film that will premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January.

AFRONAUTS TEASER from Frances Bodomo on Vimeo.

For more on Frances Bodomo’s film “The Afronauts,” see this bomb magazine article.




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