Space Race at a Snail’s Pace

The Most Ridiculous Space Programs Ever

space race apollo

Houston, we have a problem!

Houston, we have a problem! The phrase was made famous by Tom Hanks in Apollo 13 (the movie, not the capsule). However, did you know that one of the most popular astronaut-related quotes is incorrect? According to official NASA logs, the actual phrase used by the Apollo 13 crew to report a major technical malfunctions to their capsule was stated in the past tense: “Houston, we’ve had a problem here”.  Misquoting aside, the phrase also happens to be the name of one of the most interesting documentaries about the space race in the last couple of years.

Directed by the acclaimed Slovenian director Žiga Vric, “Houston We Have A Problem” looks at the alleged deal between John F. Kennedy and Josip Broz Tito involving America’s purchase of Yugoslavia’s space program in the 1960’s. Supposedly, Yugoslavian scientists found the secret diaries of the astronautics pioneer, Herman Potočnik (whose book “The Problem of Space Travel” served as an inspiration for Wernher von Braun, you know, the “father of rocket science”) and gained the knowledge to become the third contender in the space race. After Tito and Stalin had a fall out, Yugoslavia sold the diaries to the United States, which helped them get to the Moon in 1969.

The film debuts at the Tribeca Film Festival next week, so it won’t take long before we see a number of reports about the validity of the film. In the meanwhile, let’s look at some of the other space programs from around the world and see why the idea of a secret space race candidate is pretty farfetched, even though it sounds fascinating.

North Korea

Kim Jong MF Un

This probably comes as a no surprise, we’re probably all aware of the fact that the North Korea has a space program. While the news about North Korea’s claims of landing a man on the Sun were false (they originated from the Irish satirical website, Waterford Whispers News), the country is seriously working on developing their own space program. They tried to launch their first satellite back in 1998, and after that resulted in failure they tried again in 2006 (and again in 2009!). They finally managed to launch a satellite named Kwangmyŏngsŏng-3 Unit 2 into orbit in 2012, just fourteen years later, and another one in February of this year. However, the U.S. defense officials told CNN that the two satellites are basically “tumbling in orbit” and that they are practically useless.  Perhaps someone with a telescope can confirm?

Moreover, while North Korea maintains that the satellites are being launched for scientific purposes; the two launches have prompted condemnation and emergency meetings of the United Nations Security Council.

space race zambia


Who Needs Anti-gravity Simulators When You Have Oil Drums

Let’s kick off the list with probably the most laughable runner – the country of Zambia. You see, once upon a time (in 1964) a Zambian schoolteacher named Edward Makuka Nkoloso started a space program for his country on his own. He basically reruited a couple of male soldiers, a woman, who he cleverly nicknamed “Spacegirl” and two cats (Some shot monkeys in the outer space, some sent dogs, cat is obviously the next logical step, right?). With his ‘crew’ assembled, they started training the best way he could think of – rolling them down a hill in oil barrels to ‘simulate’ low or no gravity circumstances. This wasn’t the only part of the training of course: he also made them practice handstands. Their plans to colonize Mars were cut short due to sanity of the Zambian government, who pulled their funding after only a couple of months.  Wonder why?


Actually a Sad Story

space race idi

Just two years after the U.S. landed on the Moon the Ugandan dictator and an overall psychotic individual, Idi Amin began planning to send people on Mars (where else?). The plans were never realized, and the only thing that ever materialized from Amin’s ideas were car tires in the woods, that served as an obstacle course for the future astronauts. However, even though the program was listed as one of the worst ideas in the 20th century by the Time Magazine, this didn’t stop Uganda from having a dream; in fact, the space program was revived in the mid-nineties. Chris NSamba, the founder of the African Space Research Program is currently building an aircraft, which he believes will penetrate the edge of space, in his mother’s backyard as we speak.


space race mong

(This part has nothing to do with Genghis Khan, I promise.)  While the Mongolians might’ve overpowered most of the Eastern world a couple of centuries ago, Mongolia is currently the sparsest populated country on the globe. Nevertheless, as we’ve seen before, if a country wants to have a space program, nothing can stop it. However, unlike the other countries on this list, Mongolia is fairly serious with its program; in fact, it is the only country on this list that managed to send a citizen into space. The winner of the “astronaut with the most unpronounceable name” award I just made up, Jügderdemidiin Gürragchaa spent 7 days and 20 hours in orbit, 35 years ago on the Russian Salyut 6-station. He is only the second Asian to leave the Earth’s atmosphere, and the only Mongolian to do so. Mongolia planned to launch its own satellite imaginatively named MongolSat three years ago, but the satellite was never never built.  Still, becoming an astronaut is probably the most difficult accomplishment in the world currently, so lots of respect to Mr. Gürragchaa!

So as far as Mongolia goes, I guess these guys take the cake as the only country on this list that at least had a guy in the actual astronaut suit, flying in an actual space ship!  Oh, and don’t forget to vote for your favorite on our Space Race poll here:

The Space Race Continues

Some countries managed to send animals and people into space, while others managed to roll a couple of barrels and waste perfectly good tires, but humans still want to explore the universe and to boldly go where no man has gone before (foreshadowing, wink, wink). Despite the fact that these four countries don’t have the resources and the technology, you still have to admire the enthusiasm (well, maybe not in the case of North Korea). With NASA’s plans to land humans on Mars in the next 20 years, the race carries on, and if you are one of 50% of Americans that thinks that money shouldn’t be spent on the space program, just ask yourself – who will protect us from the space pirates?

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George is an avid blogger, a fiction writer in his own spare time, a content marketer during the day and a manager of the FoH website. A book nut, a movie nut and everything space nut, who loves to talk about himself in third person. He's awesome.

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