A rumbling explosion of engines roar to life, billowing smoke rolls across the desert. The fragmented spike of Icarus 13 rises slowly from its base in Angola and begins its long journey on an expedition to gather information from the surface of the sun. This is the conceptual reality photographer Kiluanji Kia Henda wove around the post-colonial buildings of Luanda, capital of Angola in Icarus 13: The First Journey to the Sun (2008).

A collection of photographic ‘evidence’ of an Angolan space mission, Icarus 13 transforms post-independence-era architecture into an imagined reality – the documentation and proof of a hugely ambitious, pioneering expedition spearheaded by an independent Angolan space program. Through Kia Henda’s camera lens, ‘fireworks over a football stadium become the blinding green light of take-off; independence-era leader Augusto Neto’s unfinished mausoleum becomes a sleek, needle-thin rocket; an unused cinema becomes a brutalist, concrete observatory.’ This was perhaps the first conceptualisation of African astronauts landing on the surface of the sun, but the power of space travel has long been a tool of empowerment for the African and Black diaspora.

The long, rich history of Afrofuturism speaks to its lasting cultural and creative force in Black liberation. Icarus 13 was indeed not the first conceptual African rocket launch: in 1964, Zambian science teacher Edwuard Makuka Nkoloso led the first African crew on a mission to the Moon. He founded the Zambian National Academy of Science, Space Research and Astronomical Research and began training his ‘Afronauts’ in their race to the lunar surface. The Afronauts’ project was a powerful statement of autonomy and presence on the world stage in the same year that they gained independence from UK rule. They demanded their place in the history of space travel dominated by the US and USSR – placing themselves at the forefront of technological excellence from which Africa has been excluded since the first moves of European colonisation and the enslavement of African people ravaged the continent for its resources, land and the people themselves. 

Neither Icarus 13, nor Nkoloso’s ‘Bantu 7 spacecraft’ would ever leave the Earth’s surface. They would never pierce the clouds and speed through the atmosphere out into the vast vacuum of space, would never engage their landing procedure and touch down on an extraterrestrial plane. Until Nuotama Bodomo made it so.

The 2014 film Afronauts directed by Nuotama Bodomo made Nkoloso’s vision a reality on the cinematic stage. A beautiful, terrifying and triumphant documentation of the Afronauts’ voyage to the Moon, Afronauts follows the 17-year-old astronaut Matha Mwamba in her preparation for the lunar expedition, hoping to beat the US and USSR in the race to the Moon. Set to a menacing score of ripping and soaring electronic tones composed by Brian McOmber, Martha undergoes intensive exercises. From ‘Buoyancy Training’ in which she is flung into the air from a plastic tarp, stretched and released by her fellow Afronauts; to ‘Weightlessness Training’ which sees her hurtling down a sand dune in a metal oil drum. 

Filmed in black and white, the Zambian ground becomes lunar sand as Martha visualises her success, imagining herself clad in a heavy white spacesuit, standing triumphantly on the Moon’s surface. The sky above the peaks of the lunar mountains is black and studded with thousands of stars, but she wakes to the sound of her name being called, still on Earth. 

The film’s climax: Martha approaches Bantu 7, dramatically lit, it looks impossibly small and fragile. She awaits the ignition of the engines by a burning stake thrown at the spacecraft. Here the film becomes a montage of footage from US launches spliced with the Afronauts craning their necks to the sky, watching the dazzling firework tear away. Suddenly it explodes, raining sparks over the desert but Martha is nowhere to be seen in the wreckage. Instead we see her standing again on the dusty grey lunar sand, but this time the sky is a bright, opaque grey.

However we might interpret this ending, Afronauts creates a visual reality for African space travel. The uniformity and anonymity of the black and white desert creates a transitory, unfixed space in which the lines between fiction and reality are blurred. Paired with the unearthly, disorienting score, the film creates a feeling of hovering unreality, a space in which anything could happen; where anything can happen. 

Afronauts is not, however, a straightforward work of fiction; it is honest and critical, depicting a reality which does not shy away from the impossibilities of Nkoloso’s 1964 vision, it documents real events with real risk to the people involved. The film also addresses modern-day Zambia: Bodomo’s casting of a woman with albinism for the starring role was a critique of prejudices rife in Zambia against people with albinism who are, in Bodomo’s own words: ‘experiencing a lack of safety around belonging, a person who’s having to prove their worthiness to the group, a person who was still othered.’ 

The power of Kia Henda’s Icarus 13: The First Journey to the Sun, Nkoloso’s space program, and Bodomo’s work of speculative fiction lies in their reality-building –  the realities they carve out for themselves. In presenting architectural works as evidence of Icarus 13’s voyage, Kia Henda retrospectively documents a pivotal moment in human history, pioneered by Angolan scientific excellence. He creates a reality which empowers an historically disempowered, colonised country and re-centres it at the apex of human space travel. Nkoloso moved through the physicality of training his Afronauts and founding the Zambian National Academy of Science, to claim Zambia’s place in the space race among the technological giants of the world. And finally, Bodomo’s 2014 film presents us with a transient, elusive depiction of Nkoloso’s space program which defies both reality and fiction. 

These acts of defiance write African history into the history of space travel, override economic and technological limitations, create an Other African history which decentres whiteness and empowers the Black body; they imprint the footprints of an Afronaut on the Moon.