Few government agencies have ever inspired confidence in the state, or scientific progress, like NASA did in the 1960s. So when the end of its space shuttle program was announced back in 2010, the agency celebrated the end of its life quietly. NASA’s current administrator, Major General Charles F. Bolden Jr., tactfully ignored the anti-Communist vitriol that put the first man on the moon, and everyone forgot why the CIA was concerned with space exploration in the first place. Almost everyone. There are stories involving secret military space programs today that can make your head spin.
Among its classified materials, NASA keeps a bag of rocks that Neil Armstrong collected during the first moonwalk. The rocks have no scientific value; the bag wasn’t sealed properly, and the sample was contaminated by regular earth dust in the landing craft. They are an unlikely target in an elaborate conspiracy to undermine the American imperial project. But then again, they’ve been sitting in Houston for decades, reminding young scientists of a time when lunar colonies were just a few years away. As the novelist Deji Olukotun sees it in his new novel, Nigerians in Space, these moon rocks are souvenirs of the future, amulets inscribed with all of the pride, wonder, and anxiety it takes to keep an idea alive. “NASA wanted the astronauts to leave with something no matter what in order to justify the expense” (62).
In Olukotun’s new novel, a Nigerian scientist stuck as a mid-level employee in the Houston laboratories finds himself with an opportunity to rip into the space-time continuum, to reclaim personal and national honor by returning the rocks to the moon “on behalf of all colonized people.” Equipped with such material, Olukotun would hardly ignore classic science fiction experiments and clichés. Nigerians in Space captures the cocksure attitude and dignified clip of the 1950s radio play, with more mischievous and macabre elements that reflect the frustration of anti-colonial and Pan-African politics. As we follow the Nigerian program (codename Brain Gain) from its launch in 1993 to an amorphous present day, cross-generational conflicts give us plenty of time to reflect on changing methods for handling security, national identity, and charisma. But Olukotun doesn’t dwell on the technology that has been developed. More alarmingly—as one generation’s faith in its dreams becomes signs of ill health to the next—he asks us what we believe is possible.
* Nigerians in Space launches tonight at 7 pm at WORD Bookstores’ Brooklyn book store. The red dots in the image above, by the NASA Earth Observatory, is of the non-stop flaring lights in the Niger Delta.