The Soviet Union pretty much defined crazy when it came to space exploration. But they were hardly the only ones: Many other proposed space projects around the globe were, to put it mildly, pants-chewing, horse-screwing, face-tattooing psychotic. Like ...
In the 1960s, there were three main groups trying to win the space race. There was the Soviet Union, which was quick out of the gate with the first satellite and man in space, but faded in the stretch to land someone on the moon. There was the United States, which was more or less neck-and-neck with the USSR. And of course there was Zambia.
Hulton Archive / Getty
Zambia: fucking awesome since forever.
What? You don't remember Zambia's contributions to the next frontier?
That's understandable: Zambia's National Academy of Science, Space Research, and Philosophy didn't have little niceties like "financial backing" or "minimal safety conditions." But they did have Edward Nkoloso. Nkoloso was a schoolteacher who saw the space race and thought, "Looks like fun." So, practically on a lark, he grabbed a bunch of bored soldiers, a woman (dubbed "Spacegirl," no less), and two of the most ambitious felines he could find and began to train them with the best facilities their meager U.N. financial support could afford. Which, considering the U.N. never agreed to fund them, wasn't much.
Who needs money when you've got moxie?
For weightlessness training, they went into the "anti-gravity simulator," aka the aspiring astronauts stuffed themselves into an oil drum and rolled down a hill. And when that was out of commission, just cutting the ropes on the swing set right as they hit their apex would work, too. They relentlessly drilled handstands, because, possibly due to a translation error, Nkoloso thought that was the only way they could walk around up there. However, Nkoloso did manage to put together preliminary rocket designs that actually didn't look half bad. And "not half bad" is more than good enough to venture a risky space launch, apparently, so the agency planned one for Independence Day 1964.
So who forgot to tell you about the poor African country that established the first colony on Mars? Nobody: The academy occupied a strange limbo between serious ambition and wacky cult. Most sensible Zambians thought they were nutjobs, with only a select few influential government employees ever lending them much credence. Inevitably, with all of their fictional money falling through and his only female astronaut now pregnant and out of training (Spacegirl, no! You seemed so dedicated), Nkoloso's academy collapsed in 1964. Not dissuaded by his many massive, laughable failures and his shameful wasting of other people's money, Nkoloso went into politics not long after.
And something beautiful perished from the Earth.
In 1975, Stanford designers proposed a doughnut-shaped space station to simulate artificial gravity. Not a bad idea, right? If it's good enough for 2001: A Space Odyssey and a doughy fried pastry, it's good enough for space. NASA approved the plan, and by the summer of 1975, the space station, code named Stanford Torus, was the frontrunner. So they turned their attention to the artificial gravity, sunlight, food, and water required to support the 10,000 people who would live there.
Apparently the guys from BioWare are plagiarists.
Uh, 10,000 people? We wanted to go from zero manned space stations to a friggin' celestial city in one step? Yep. And it was looking good, too -- if not from real-life testing, then at least from the bitchin' stoner's-dorm-room-caliber concept art.
Incredibly, this isn't an Air album.
Everything was going groovy ... that is, until somebody thought to ask about the ludicrous typo in the budget.
Even with the Soviet and European space programs working together with NASA, launching all 10 million tons of construction material would take decades, and that's with rockets being launched every week. Total cost: $200 billion! That's in 1975 dollars, too, which today would translate to approximately ... everything. All of the money that was ever printed or that would potentially be printed in the future, forever and ever, amen.
Worth it. Totally worth it.
It was an insane number, is what we're saying here.
With pressure building to develop the much cheaper Space Shuttle program, the city-size doughnut in space lost a bit of its luster.
Perhaps some glaze would bring it back.
There have been many space stations launched into orbit, and most of them had peaceful intentions and were used for important scientific inquiries, like "Dude, how hard is it to put socks on in zero gravity?"
Then you have Salyut 3.
The first Salyut was cooler, but whatever.
Lobbed into orbit by the Soviet Union in 1974, Salyut 3 was equipped with an army of cameras to take photos of U.S. military installations and other targets of value. But that's fairly standard Cold War antics, right? Well ...
The Soviets were paranoid enough to think someone might somehow attack the station, so they equipped it with an anti-aircraft gun to shoot down potential enemies and space invaders. That's right: This battle station was fully armed and operational.
The USSR, via Sven Grahn
Luke Skywalker probably could've taken it out with a golf club.
Fortunately, the gun was never used, save for the time they test-fired it and destroyed a satellite. Since then, no space station has again been armed, but your inner nerd can rest at ease knowing that, no matter how anticlimactic it may have been, there was at least one real-life space battle in our history.
If you still need consolation, perhaps this photo of a prototype starfighter will help:
One real space dogfight would've almost been worth the nuclear annihilation of all mankind.
That is not a movie prop: Some Western intelligence agencies are convinced that the Soviet Union was developing the world's first and, so far, only space fighter, because they feared the Space Shuttle (yes, THAT Space Shuttle, the friendly metal orca of the skies) would be used as an orbital bomber and they needed a way to shoot it down. It may have even had two successful test launches in 1987 (although the Soviets insist they were just testing their own shuttle) before it was sensibly canceled.
There goes stupid sensibility, getting in the way of awesome again.
Of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these, "It might have been."