Fairy Tale Photos Of An African Space Program

In 1964, a Zambian high school science teacher founded a national space program. Fifty years later, a brilliant photo book imagines what could have been.

In 1964, a Zambian high school science teacher named Edward Makuka Nkoloso took it upon himself to found a space program for his country. It was the climax of the Space race, and Nkoloso wanted to put the first African on the moon (and later, Mars). “Zambians are inferior to no men in science and technology,” he wrote in an op-ed entitled “We’re Going To Mars!” “My space plans will surely be carried out.”


Alas, Nkoloso’s plan was deeply underfunded. His group had no capital to build a rocket, and ttraining mainly consisted of rolling down a hill inside an oil drum (though to be fair, that’s not so different from early NASA training techniques). A few months into the project, one of his astronauts-in-training, a 16-year-old girl, became pregnant, and the program quickly fell apart.

What remains of the program today is told in film reels and newspaper articles–not much to work with for the Belgian-Spanish photojournalist Cristina De Middel, whose book, The Afronauts, offers a fictionalized photographic account of Nkoloso’s would-be program. De Middel is known for spinning surreal fiction from reality: In 2009, she gained notoriety for her portraits of the fictional people who send out spam mail. “As a photojournalist, I have always been attracted by the eccentric lines of storytelling,” she writes, and “avoiding the same old subjects told in the same old ways.”

For The Afronauts, De Middel crafted a fictionalized series of props and landscapes, including maps, documents, and a spacesuit woven from colorful textiles (stitched by her grandmother), which she photographed in the midst of dunescapes and elephants. Like Tom Sachs’ Mars project, the resulting book is full of playful ambiguity–a game of sorts, where De Middel dares us to suspend disbelief. Eventually, the entire web of documents was woven into a limited edition book, where maps of Mars unfold next to isometric drawings of the spacesuit, and real letters about the program sit next to images of Roswell aliens. Nkoloso was fascinated by the possibility of extraterrestrial life–he even wrote that while he was bringing along a missionary on the first flight, “I have warned the missionary he must not force Christianity on the people of Mars, if they do not want it.”

Today, Nkoloso’s space program is something of a historical curiosity–and it’s often spoken of with a hint of condescension. Part of De Middel’s MO, she explains, is to point out the incredulity with which most of the world viewed the project. “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,” she told Wired in 2012. “It hides a very subtle critique to our position towards the whole continent and our prejudices.”

The Afronauts will be part of Afrofuture, a group show in Milan next week. Around the same time, the book will be released as an iPhone and iPad app, designed by Ubicou Studio. Check it out here.

About the author

Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan is Co.Design's deputy editor.