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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March 13, 2011 - 5:20am
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