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Zambia boldly goes

In the recent celebrations of the moon landings 40 years ago, the space race between the Americans and the Russians has been the focus of attention. Little do people realise that Zambia was also in the running to be the first to place a man on the moon.

Edward Mukuka Nkoloso, an ex-schoolteacher and self-styled director general of the National Academy of Science, Space Research and Philosophy, was running his own space programme deep in the heart of Africa. I had heard about Nkoloso, so when I passed through Lusaka, the capital of Zambia, in 1966, I went round to his offices. The director general appeared in the red robe of the academy, followed by a servant carrying a wooden spear with a golden eagle on top.

Nkoloso was only prepared to divulge certain facts about his programme. The launchpad was located "out in the bush". He had assembled 12 astronauts for training. They would be placed in a 44-gallon oil drum and rolled down an anthill or made to walk on their hands because, as Nkoloso explained, things were upside down on the moon. He had tied a rope to a tree and would swing the astronauts back and forth, releasing the rope in mid-flight to give them what he called "a feeling of weightlessness".

I was keen to discover how Nkoloso was planning to propel his rocket, but on this topic he was reticent. He confided, however, that he was experimenting with liquid oxygen and kerosene, as well as various other chemicals bought from the local chemist. He was also developing a method called "the Mukwa system", based on the catapult. By stretching rubber inner tubes between two trees and placing a capsule in the middle, they had already reached heights of ten feet.

Nkoloso wasn't just a technician, he was a theoretician. "Look at that tree," he said, pointing through the window. "Because I can see the tree, I can go to the tree. It's the same with the moon." When I met Nkoloso he was finding it difficult to raise funding for his space programme. He had asked the United Nations for $19.6m (£11.9m), but hadn't received a reply. The Zambian government, too, was reluctant to help out. So Nkoloso had approached the Americans, suggesting that they combine US technology and Zambian know-how to place a Zambian and an American on the moon together. There was just one caveat: "When the two astronauts step on to the moon, the Zambian flag goes up first."

Nkoloso's plans failed to materialise. One astronaut got pregnant and was removed by her parents, and the others went their own way. The academy's motto ("Where fate and human glory lead we are always there") was unfulfilled. When man walked on the moon, the glory went to the US, not those intrepid Zambian astronauts who had walked on their hands or rolled down anthills in oil drums.