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The Story Behind AFRONAUTS Classic

I believe we are all familiar with the Afronauts Sneakers or “We are going to MARS” like some people refer to it. Today, we are going to give a background information on the origination and creation of the design.

I know history can be a bit boring but I’ll make it as lively as I can. It’s worth the read.

Before I proceed, here is an image of the Afronauts for those that are unfamiliar with the design.

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Afronauts Sneakers

In 1964, about 56 years ago, on the celebration of Zambia’s independence, Edward Makuka Nkoloso informed the TIME reporter who covered the event that his Zambian “astronauts” would beat both the US and the Soviet Union in the space race – by going to the moon, and then to Mars.

This was an unusual boast, to say the least. At the time, Zambia’s population numbered 3.6 million, with barely 1500 African-born high school graduates and less than 100 college graduates. Nkoloso himself was a grade-school science teacher, and self-appointed director of the country’s (unofficial) National Academy of Science, Space Research and Philosophy.

But he had big dreams of using a catapult-inspired “firing system” to send a 10×6 aluminum and copper rocket holding ten Zambians and a 17-year-old African girl (and her cat) to Mars. He figured he could get them to the moon by 1965. All he needed was $700 million from UNESCO to fund the project.

Nkoloso claimed to have studied Mars for some time from telescopes at his “secret headquarters” outside Lusaka, and announced that the planet was populated by primitive natives. (He graciously added that his missionaries would not force the native Martians to convert to Christianity.) In fact, he said, he could have achieved the conquest of Mars a mere few days after Zambia’s independence had UNESCO come through with the funding. Oh, he also called for the detention of Russian and American spies trying to steal his “space secrets” – and his cats.

Naive? Ignorant? Sure. Especially in light of his less than dedicated volunteers: “They won’t concentrate on space flight; there’s too much love-making when they should be studying the moon,” he complained. Indeed, the much-touted girl astronaut, Matha, became pregnant and her parents brought her back to their village.

Nkoloso’s astronauts never got to Mars. Or the moon. Or even out of Lusaka. The Zambian government carefully distanced itself from his project. Even today, the US is the only country to have successfully landed a spacecraft on Mars, and has yet to spearhead a manned mission to the red planet. But while Nkoloso may have been a bit crazy, he had clearly zeroed in on the future: space travel was going to be a big deal. And he wanted Zambia to be a part of it.

Several Decades later, Cristina De Middel’s new photography exhibition, called “The Afronauts,” explores the space program started in 1964 by Nkoloso who dreamt of sending Zambians to space at the height of the space race between the Soviet Union and the United States. The exhibit, now on display at the Dillon Gallery in New York City, mixes found artifacts from the time and De Middel’s photos inspired by the short-lived space program.

“The beautiful part of it and the part of the story that I really focus on is not what they actually did, because their training was very rudimentary,” De Middel told SPACE.com. “I don’t know, but I don’t think they were really, really serious about going. Everything happened in 1964, that is when Zambia gained independence, and they wanted to show the rest of the world that they were a big country, as big as the ones that were doing the space race at the time.”

The photos used in “The Afronauts” were taken or doctored by De Middel, but a news article and letters at the beginning and end of the exhibit are original, yet reprinted.

“I needed to put some balance in the dreamy aspects of the images and just to play up the different levels of this fact and fiction game I was proposing,” De Middel said. “The press article is real. The letters are real — the text is real — I just typed them again in an old typewriter … [I used] these documents that would support the idea of something that is real but unbelievable.”

“Zambians are inferior to no men in science and technology,” Nkoloso wrote. “My space plans will surely be carried out.”

Unfortunately, the Zambian government and UNESCO didn’t agree. UNESCO denied Nkoloso’s request for 7 million pounds, and the Zambian government was never fully supportive of his plan.

The big goals of the time clearly influenced Nkoloso, Middel said. “If Zambia [gained] independence now, maybe, instead of doing the space race, which makes no sense, they would just get involved in genetic research or something like that, because that’s what the big countries are doing now,” De Middel said. “At the time they were doing the space race in order to put themselves on the map.”

“The Afronauts” is based on a book of the same name that De Middel released in 2012.

Our photographic adaption is from the works of Cristina de Middel, a Spanish documentary photographer and artist.

Zambia sure didn’t go to MARS but I believe with the advance in technology and much determination from them. They should be going to MARS soon.

I believe we all have a brief understanding of the story behind the “We are going to MARS” sneakers.

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