NASA astronaut Mae Jemison waits as her suit technician, Sharon McDougle, performs a unpressurized and pressurized leak check on her spacesuit, 1992.
Deeper Dive

Space Scientists of Color, and the “Afronauts”

July 02, 2019 by Independent Lens in Beyond the Films

By Satu Runa

What drives humankind to explore? There are several factors that can embolden a person to “seek out new civilizations” or “boldly go where no one has gone before,” to borrow from Star Trek‘s famous opener. History has taught us that famine, war, strife, and persecution can drive people away from their home country, yet positive things like opportunity or hope for a better life can draw us towards the unknown.

But when it comes to space, one concept that is universal to humanity, regardless of who we are, is discovery.

Early Inspiration

My initial interest in space exploration began, like many others, with Star Trek–specifically, The Next Generation. I admired counselor Deanna Troi because she resembled my sister (we are of Indian descent, Marina Sirtis is of Greek descent). Before Marina, there was Persis Khambatta, an Indian actress who portrayed Lieutenant Ilia in Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979).

The oft-repeated phrase, “Representation Matters” rings true, and science-fiction is a huge source of inspiration for many of today’s astronauts, including the first African American woman in space, Astronaut Mae Jemison, who was inspired to pursue space science because of Nichelle Nichols, “Lt. Uhura” in the original Star Trek series.

Meeting People of Color from NASA

I visited NASA for the first time this February, as part of the NASA Social team for the highly anticipated, successful launch of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon. During the press conference, we got to know several scientists and engineers of NASA. I’ll never forget meeting Brittani Sims, Certification Systems Engineer and the youngest person working for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. With unbridled enthusiasm, she spoke of how an internship led to her dream job at NASA.

Brittani Sims at SpaceX NASA social meetup (photo by Satu Runa)
Brittani Sims (photo by Satu Runa)

Another huge highlight of the launch was getting to meet Taiwanese astronaut Kjell Lindgren, a backup crew member of SpaceX’s first crewed mission, Dragon 2 (SpX-DM2). There certainly is a concentrated effort towards more diversity in STEM fields, as NASA continues to lure in the brightest and best from all walks of life.

International Space Programs

It’s not just Americans who love space. Inspired by the Space Race between the USSR and the USA in the 1950s and ’60s, scientists of color around the world have contributed to creating the space programs for their home countries. Today, only three countries have human spaceflight capabilities (USA, China, and Russia); however, 12 countries have launch capabilities and command satellites (including Japan, India, North Korea, and Iran). Chandrayaan-2, the Indian Space Research Organization’s second lunar mission, aims to land a rover on the moon’s south pole July 15, 2019. China made history this June when the China National Space Administration launched a rocket into space from a barge in the Yellow Sea for the first time. They join the USA and Russia as the only countries to achieve such a task.

Astronaut Kalpana Chawla looks over a procedures checklist in the SPACEHAB Research Double Module aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia.
Astronaut Kalpana Chawla looks over a procedures checklist in the SPACEHAB Research Double Module aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia.

Non-super power countries can boast of having their own space science heroes. Mission specialist Kalpana Chawla became the first Indian woman (she moved to the US when she was 20) in space aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia, in 1997. Tragically, she was one of seven crew members killed in 2003 when the Columbia disintegrated upon atmospheric entry over Texas. As the primary robotic arm operator, she was recognized as a national hero in her home country of India, and even has an asteroid named after her: 51826 Kalpanachawla.

Arnaldo Tamayo's space suit, on display at Museo de la Revolución, Havana, Cuba
Arnaldo Tamayo’s space suit, on display at Museo de la Revolución, Havana, Cuba

Franklin Chang Díaz from Costa Rica was the first Latin American immigrant and NASA Astronaut selected to go into space, making history by tying Jerry L. Ross’s record for the most human spaceflights.

In 1980, Interkosmos (former Russian space program) sent the first person of African heritage to go into Earth orbit, Cuban cosmonaut Arnaldo Tamayo Méndez. Méndez flew the Soyuz 38 human spaceflight mission to the Salyut 6 space station with only one other crewmember.

Nkoloso and the “Afronauts”

Do enough digging about how countries in Africa responded to the initial international Space Race of the 1960s, and you’d find Zambia’s infamous space program started by political activist and school teacher, Edward Makuka Nkoloso. However, what started as a dream in 1964 ended up not doing the Zambians any favors in regards to establishing a serious image as a newly minted independent nation.

For example, while Nkoloso’s “Academy of Sciences and Space Technology” recruited and trained teenaged astronauts from local youth activist groups, Nkoloso also recruited two cats (he had personally trained to go to Mars) that would test the atmosphere before the humans set foot on Martian soil.

Spanish photographer, Cristina De Middel captured the romanticized version of Nkoloso’s incredible story in her self-published photo book, “The Afronauts” in 2012. In her vision of Nkoloso’s time as head of the rudimentary space program, she captures expressions in her subjects (dressed like children’s theater performers) full of hopes and dreams of traveling to a far off place. What resembles a space mission being “Sweded” (a la Michel Gondry’s cult classic, Be Kind Rewind, where the clerks of a video rental store accidentally erase the VHS tapes and must film each popular movie by recreating the iconic moments using only the materials they have on hand), is endearing at first sight.

Zambian Afronauts in training
Zambian Afronauts in training

However, what was mocked by many at the time was led by a man on a mission as intense as any other space program from more prosperous countries. Nkoloso just didn’t have the funding. When he requested the $7 million dollar grant from UNESCO, he was ignored. It could be because what consisted as “training” at his academy involved rolling students downhill in a barrel to simulate “weightlessness.”

“Some people think I’m crazy,” Nkoloso told a reporter for the Associated Press. “But I’ll be laughing the day I plant Zambia’s flag on the moon.”

Frances Bodomo’s fictionalized short film about the Afronauts:

Many people indeed saw Nkoloso as insane during his time running the space academy. In an interview for The New Yorker,  Zambia’s then president, Kenneth David Kaunda, said that “it wasn’t a real thing. He wasn’t a scientist, as such. But he used to do some… I can’t say ‘funny things,’ but many people enjoyed…what he was talking about. It was more for fun than anything else.” This in some ways suggests that Nkoloso embodied the universal condition afflicting all of us, “dreaming.” He dreamed of a future where man could “freely move from one planet to another” as he stated in one of his final interviews before his death in 1989. Sounds a lot like the Elon Musk of 1960s Zambia, minus the billions of dollars.

As for Africa’s future in space flight, the African Union plans to launch the African Space Agency (AfriSpace) by 2023, headquartered in Cairo and funded by Egypt.

What does it take to create a successful space mission? Nkoloso had what he needed to begin, which is the curiosity and drive to do something about it. For a man driven to madness after being beaten by Northern Rhodesian police for his dissenting activism, he may not have had the best-laid plans for a successful space exploration program, but his intentions were clear. “Afronauts” photographer DeMiddel put it best:

“He had a fascination for the universe that we all share. Asking if we’re alone, looking at the stars, making metaphysical questions. That is a universal feeling and it doesn’t belong to the people who can actually have the technology to go to the moon; it’s everywhere.”

The story of Nkoloso’s “Afronauts” seems to inspire or entertain people more these days than in the 1960s. Cristina De Middel’s photograph-laden book about the story sold out within a few months.

Nkoloso was buried in Zambia with full presidential honors.

Satu Runa is a Canadian-American writer, filmmaker, and actor from Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. She enjoys attending rocket launches, stargazing, and Douglas Adams books. She resides in Los Angeles, CA.

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