Chances are you never heard of Mr. Edward Mukaka (1919-1989), a Zambian grade-school teacher who taught science. Yet this man’s story and larger than life aspirations are on display in many science and space exhibitions around the world. After learning about this peculiar yet fascinating man last month at the ArtScience Museum in Singapore, I just couldn’t resist writing about him.
Mr. Mukaka, during the height of the space race between the Soviet Union (U.S.S.R.) and the U.S., founded the Zambia National Academy of Science, Space Research and Astronomical Research in 1960. He hoped to beat the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. and make Zambia the first country to put a human being on the Moon and then on Mars. This man refused to see Africa and Zambia as substandard but capable to dream big just like the rest of the world did. He saw a “Zambia of the future as a space-age Zambia.”
He set up camp for training on an abandoned farm just outside of the Zambian capital, Lusaka. He rolled his space cadets down a hill in a forty-gallon oil drum to simulate the weightless conditions of the moon. ‘I also make them swing from the end of a long rope,’ Mr. Musaka told a reporter. “When they reach the highest point, I cut the rope. This produces the feeling of free fall”.
Mr. Mukaka planned to send his rocket, named D-Kalu 1, into space on 24th of October, 1964, the very date that Zambia would become an independent country. Specially trained Matha Mwambwa, a 17-year-old girl, two cats (also specially trained) would have been the first ones to blast off to space. Unfortunately Ms. Mwambwa became pregnant and left the space program. Additionally the rocket was claimed to have been sabotaged “by foreign elements” and the Zambian government distanced itself from Mukaka’s endeavor. Mr. Mukaka ended his space program in 1969 and he retired in 1972. In one of his last interviews before his death he told a Zambian reporter according to The New Yorker dated 11 March, 2017: “I still have the vision of the future of man. I still feel man will freely move from one planet to another.” Mr. Mukaka is definitely a reminder of the power that space travel had and still has in the popular imagination.