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A Brief History of the Congolese Space Program

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In recent months, NASA has lamented the lack of minority students interested in majoring in science and engineering fields and has now partnered with the United Negro College Fund in order to encourage college-bound African-American students to consider a career in these under-represented disciplines. If astrobiology research seems like an insurmountable goal to some U.S. students, perhaps they’d be encouraged by the efforts of the dedicated group of workers and researchers that comprises the space program in the Democratic Republic of Congo. With limited resources and an even more limited cash supply, Congolese rocket enthusiasts have been launching Troposphere crafts with varying degrees of success since 2007.


The idea of actually attempting space travel from Congo didn’t originate there, but rather with a West German company called Orbital Transport und Raketn Aktiengesellschaft (OTRAG). Founded in Stuttgart in 1975, OTRAG had a corporate vision of “space trucking,” or a “throwaway” method of transporting communication and other peaceful satellites into orbit at bargain-basement prices. The company had one major hurdle to overcome, however—mainly the amended 1954 Treaty of Brussels, which prohibited the development and launching of missiles on German soil. OTRAG made an unusual (and controversial at the time) agreement with President Mobutu Sese Seko of the Republic of Zaire in 1978 for the 25-year rental of a plot of land approximately the size of Indiana to serve as “the private Cape Canaveral of Africa.” The location was chosen partially for its proximity to the equator, but the willingness of a national leader to agree to a long-term lease for a large parcel of land also played a major part in Zaire’s selection. OTRAG-1, consisting of four propulsion modules, a nose cone, and four fins, was launched from Zaire on May 18, 1977, and achieved an altitude of 12 miles before the four engines broke off and OTRAG-1 plummeted back to Earth.

The Iron Curtain Comes Down

Two years after OTRAG-1 launched, President Mobutu bowed to pressure from the Soviet Union (who’d gathered “intelligence” tracing OTRAG to World War II-era Nazi scientists and were convinced the company was a front for gathering military intelligence) and cut its ties with OTRAG.

The German company took their $150 million and moved to Libya for a time before going belly-up. Meanwhile, the space bug had bitten the country now known as the Democratic Republic of Congo. It bubbled under the surface for many years, particularly in the mind of Jean-Patrice Keka, who graduated from Kinshasa’s Institut Supérieur des Techniques Appliquées (ISTA) with a degree in engineering. Keka formed his own company, Développement Tous Azimuts (DTA), with an eye to eventually launching the first African satellite.

Small Company, Big Dreams

In 2005 DTA hired a small team of Congolese scientists and began a space program called “Troposphere.” Being a tiny, independent company, DTA couldn’t afford to pay the researchers a salary comparable to what they’d earn, say, teaching at a university, but the prospect of having their name attached to such a ground-breaking project lured Congo’s best and brightest. The company purchased some land in Menkao, a suburb of Kinshasa, and built a control center that included an automatic powering device, a telemetry system, a video monitoring system to control the rocket trajectory and a rocket launching pad. The purchase of the necessary technological components to equip the center put a serious strain on DTA’s limited finances, and as a result much of the Troposphere I rocket was built out of scrap material. The scheduled launch date of that craft was April 2007, but it was scratched due to “technical reasons.”

Try, Try Again

Despite the disappointment of Troposphere I, DTA persevered and successfully launched Troposphere II on July 10, 2007. The rocket reached an altitude of 1,014 meters (.63 miles) in 35 seconds. Troposphere III suffered the same fate as model number one, but Troposphere IV managed to fly 15 km (a little over nine miles) into the atmosphere in 47 seconds on July 10, 2008, hitting a top speed of Mach 2.7. The Minister of Higher Education, University and Scientific Research, was present at this launch and upon his recommendation, the Congolese government got involved with DTA’s space program and offered some financial support.

Rats!

Troposphere V was a two-stage rocket that launched on March 28, 2008. The $50,000 five-meter long craft was supposed to reach an altitude of 36 km (22 miles) in 95 seconds at Mach 3. This was also the first craft in the Congolese space program to have a passenger aboard—a rat that ultimately gave its life for science, since Troposphere V failed to launch vertically and crashed shortly after liftoff. Despite this latest setback, Jean-Patrice Keka and his team are hard at work on Troposphere VI. The Congolese government is also offering its support, as a full-fledged space program could result in unlimited employment opportunities in the form of companies needed to produce the necessary chemical, electronic and telecommunication components. Keka also envisions future involvement in the project on a Pan-African level, with students across the continent choosing to study the corollary scientific disciplines in order to work together to build a state-of-the art space center.

You can find out eight other things you didn’t know about the Democratic Republic of Congo in the latest issue of mental_floss! Not a subscriber? Quick, click here!

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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
A Chinese Museum Is Offering Cash to Whoever Can Decipher These 3000-Year-Old Inscriptions

During the 19th century, farmers in China’s Henan Province began discovering oracle bones—engraved ox scapulae and tortoise shells used by Shang Dynasty leaders for record-keeping and divination purposes—while plowing their fields. More bones were excavated in subsequent years, and their inscriptions were revealed to be the earliest known form of systematic writing in East Asia. But over the decades, scholars still haven’t come close to cracking half of the mysterious script’s roughly 5000 characters—which is why one Chinese museum is asking member of the public for help, in exchange for a generous cash reward.

As Atlas Obscura reports, the National Museum of Chinese Writing in Anyang, Henan Province has offered to pay citizen researchers about $15,000 for each unknown character translated, and $7500 if they provide a disputed character’s definitive meaning. Submissions must be supported with evidence, and reviewed by at least two language specialists.

The museum began farming out their oracle bone translation efforts in Fall 2016. The costly ongoing project has hit a stalemate, and scholars hope that the public’s collective smarts—combined with new advances in technology, including cloud computing and big data—will yield new information and save them research money.

As of today, more than 200,000 oracle bones have been discovered—around 50,000 of which bear text—so scholars still have a lot to learn about the Shang Dynasty. Many of the ancient script's characters are difficult to verify, as they represent places and people from long ago. However, decoding even just one character could lead to a substantial breakthrough, experts say: "If we interpret a noun or a verb, it can bring many scripts on oracle bones to life, and we can understand ancient history better,” Chinese history professor Zhu Yanmin told the South China Morning Post.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

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6 Eponyms Named After the Wrong Person
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Salmonella species growing on agar.

Having something named after you is the ultimate accomplishment for any inventor, mathematician, scientist, or researcher. Unfortunately, the credit for an invention or discovery does not always go to the correct person—senior colleagues sometimes snatch the glory, fakers pull the wool over people's eyes, or the fickle general public just latches onto the wrong name.

1. SALMONELLA (OR SMITHELLA?)

In 1885, while investigating common livestock diseases at the Bureau of Animal Industry in Washington, D.C., pathologist Theobald Smith first isolated the salmonella bacteria in pigs suffering from hog cholera. Smith’s research finally identified the bacteria responsible for one of the most common causes of food poisoning in humans. Unfortunately, Smith’s limelight-grabbing supervisor, Daniel E. Salmon, insisted on taking sole credit for the discovery. As a result, the bacteria was named after him. Don’t feel too sorry for Theobald Smith, though: He soon emerged from Salmon’s shadow, going on to make the important discovery that ticks could be a vector in the spread of disease, among other achievements.

2. AMERICA (OR COLUMBIANA?)

An etching of Amerigo Vespucci
Henry Guttmann/Getty Images

Florentine explorer Amerigo Vespucci (1451–1512) claimed to have made numerous voyages to the New World, the first in 1497, before Columbus. Textual evidence suggests Vespucci did take part in a number of expeditions across the Atlantic, but generally does not support the idea that he set eyes on the New World before Columbus. Nevertheless, Vespucci’s accounts of his voyages—which today read as far-fetched—were hugely popular and translated into many languages. As a result, when German cartographer Martin Waldseemüller was drawing his map of the Novus Mundi (or New World) in 1507 he marked it with the name "America" in Vespucci’s honor. He later regretted the choice, omitting the name from future maps, but it was too late, and the name stuck.

3. BLOOMERS (OR MILLERS?)

A black and white image of young women wearing bloomers
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Dress reform became a big issue in mid-19th century America, when women were restricted by long, heavy skirts that dragged in the mud and made any sort of physical activity difficult. Women’s rights activist Elizabeth Smith Miller was inspired by traditional Turkish dress to begin wearing loose trousers gathered at the ankle underneath a shorter skirt. Miller’s new outfit immediately caused a splash, with some decrying it as scandalous and others inspired to adopt the garb.

Amelia Jenks Bloomer was editor of the women’s temperance journal The Lily, and she took to copying Miller’s style of dress. She was so impressed with the new freedom it gave her that she began promoting the “reform dress” in her magazine, printing patterns so others might make their own. Bloomer sported the dress when she spoke at events and soon the press began to associate the outfit with her, dubbing it “Bloomer’s costume.” The name stuck.

4. GUILLOTINE (OR LOUISETTE?)

Execution machines had been known prior to the French Revolution, but they were refined after Paris physician and politician Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin suggested they might be a more humane form of execution than the usual methods (hanging, burning alive, etc.). The first guillotine was actually designed by Dr. Antoine Louis, Secretary of the Academy of Surgery, and was known as a louisette. The quick and efficient machine was quickly adopted as the main method of execution in revolutionary France, and as the bodies piled up the public began to refer to it as la guillotine, for the man who first suggested its use. Guillotin was very distressed at the association, and when he died in 1814 his family asked the French government to change the name of the hated machine. The government refused and so the family changed their name instead to escape the dreadful association.

5. BECHDEL TEST (OR WALLACE TEST?)

Alison Bechdel
Alison Bechdel
Steve Jennings/Getty Images

The Bechdel Test is a tool to highlight gender inequality in film, television, and fiction. The idea is that in order to pass the test, the movie, show, or book in question must include at least one scene in which two women have a conversation that isn’t about a man. The test was popularized by the cartoonist Alison Bechdel in 1985 in her comic strip “Dykes to Watch Out For,” and has since become known by her name. However, Bechdel asserts that the idea originated with her friend Lisa Wallace (and was also inspired by the writer Virginia Woolf), and she would prefer for it to be known as the Bechdel-Wallace test.

6. STIGLER’S LAW OF EPONYMY (OR MERTON’S LAW?)

Influential sociologist Robert K. Merton suggested the idea of the “Matthew Effect” in a 1968 paper noting that senior colleagues who are already famous tend to get the credit for their junior colleagues’ discoveries. (Merton named his phenomenon [PDF] after the parable of talents in the Gospel of Matthew, in which wise servants invest money their master has given them.)

Merton was a well-respected academic, and when he was due to retire in 1979, a book of essays celebrating his work was proposed. One person who contributed an essay was University of Chicago professor of statistics Stephen Stigler, who had corresponded with Merton about his ideas. Stigler decided to pen an essay that celebrated and proved Merton’s theory. As a result, he took Merton’s idea and created Stigler’s Law of Eponymy, which states that “No scientific discovery is named after its original discoverer”—the joke being that Stigler himself was taking Merton’s own theory and naming it after himself. To further prove the rule, the “new” law has been adopted by the academic community, and a number of papers and articles have since been written on "Stigler’s Law."

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