Virgin Galactic describes astronauts as “the world’s most exclusive club.” I know this because I recently downloaded the company’s brochure, and spent many happy minutes fantasizing about what it would be like to lay down $200,000 and take out a membership. Virgin Galactic, as I’m sure you’ve heard, is the space tourism company dreamt up by Sir Richard Branson, the former record-store owner who has racked up such a vast personal fortune that he is now ranked the fourth wealthiest person in the UK.
Branson wants spaceflight to be a pleasant, zenlike experience—rather like a supersonic spa. Banished are the days of adrenalin-infused terror when NASA strapped husky young farm boys to the back of faulty rockets. The Virgin Galactic journey begins in serenity in the New Mexico desert, in a spaceport designed by the architectural firm of Foster + Partners (the name says it all).
And to minimize inconvenience, the company has boiled down its flight training for would-be astronauts to just two days of instruction, including “tips on how to be most comfortable with higher levels of G forces.” (As someone who once flew in the backseat of an F-18 fighter jet, I’m pretty sure that the word comfortable does not belong in a sentence about high G-forces.)
But then, just when I was ready to toss out all that lululemon-coloured prose, the brochure got to the flight itself. And suddenly, Branson’s vision of space travel had me. I was powerless to resist. “As you hurtle through the atmosphere’s edges,” explains the brochure, “the large windows show the sky turning from cobalt blue to black…. [And] the gravity which has dominated every movement since the day you were born is not there anymore.” At once, the thought of that moment, the thought of wafting through the cabin, swimming serenely through the air like a goldfish in a glass bowl, gazing into the blackness of space, was thrilling. I was dying to take a ride.
The brochure doesn’t mention how many people have signed up for the flight. I’d love to know. But it does quote a few of these would-be astronauts and their reasons for laying out so much hard cash for something so ephemeral. Timothy, 50, yearns, for example, to “experience the thrill of riding a rocket into space and then…wonder in silence at the incredible beauty of the planet below.”
But what if Timothy and the others had been born in an earlier time and in a dirt-poor country—Zambia, say. And what if they had never heard of Sir Richard Branson or Virgin Galactic, much less the concept of space tourism. What then?
In 1964, a Zambian school teacher, Edward Mukuka Nkoloso, dreamed of flying to the moon. He urged the Zambian government to establish an African space program that would compete head on with NASA and the Soviets to place astronauts on the moon. Zambian officials listened politely, and then got on with more earthly problems, like building hospitals and schools. So Nkoloso built his own space academy in an abandoned farmhouse near the Zambian capital and began training young African men and women to become astronauts. His techniques were unconventional.
The outside world, and many Zambians, thought Nkoloso and his astronauts were nuts. The Zambian space academy came to naught.
But recently, Spanish artist and photojournalist Cristina de Middel recreated, with many obvious liberties, Nkoloso’s doomed space program in a series of photographs and the odd but incredibly memorable short video below.
It seems to me that Nkoloso and his fellows were not so very different from the men and women who now dream of lifting off from Virgin Galactic’s spaceport —only a little ahead of their time.