Troposphere, Jean-Patrice Keka and the Congolese space program

Let’s have a look at Troposphere and Jean-Patrice Keka. Like the United States of America, Russia, Europe or China, a space program does exist in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Troposphere is a Congolese rocket family first established in 2007 with the aim to send African rockets into outer space and someday, put African satellites into orbit. The astronautical research program carried out in the Democratic Republic of Congo for the development of rockets, is the initiative of the private company Développement Tous Azimuts (DTA), headquartered in Lubumbashi, the capital of the relatively prosperous Haut-Katanga Province.

Développement Tous Azimuts (Troposphere and Jean-Patrice Keka), created thanks to profits made during the commodities trade boom, is directed by the fifty years old Congolese scientific Jean-Patrice Keka, a graduate of the Institut Supérieur des Techniques Appliquées (ISTA) in Kinshasa, also known as the “African Einstein”, who has been launching rockets for the past ten years from yam fields on the outskirts of the village of Menkao, two hours away from the capital, Kinshasa. Judging his sales of copper and medical equipment too little stimulating, he embarked on the conquest of outer space. Hundreds of Congolese come each time to see Keka’s launches: villagers, soldiers, journalists… Some even collapse in prayer during take-off. In the long term, Congo’s most famous space engineer wants to launch satellites into low Earth orbit from the Democratic Republic of Congo; but for that, the financial implication of the Congolese government is necessary.

In Keka’s self-built control centre, a corrugated iron sheet shelter with a wind vane, there are a series of old 11-inch television sets and computers with floppy drives. There are also relics of past flights, such as this box of Ovomaltine in which a rat almost became the first Congolese animal to reach the stratosphere. A local mining company is renting him some precision cutting machines and other equipment that he uses to cast rocket pieces, but, he says that “maybe they don’t know what I’m doing”. His new Space Center has been built in an underground bunker, in the event that a rocket would fall backward. A soldier he pays to avoid burglaries sometimes sleeps inside. He also hired about thirty graduates from Congolese universities. None of the five spacecraft designed by this fifty years old engineer has yet came out of the atmosphere.

I’ve been really keen on science since childhood, although I was restricted to research for a long time. Of course, the scarce resources in Congo were discouraging. While I was pursuing commercial studies, I would fill my notebooks with ideas and build rockets in my spare time. At some point, I was contacted by the government and taken to the Ministry of Defense, where I met great military engineers who were willing to help me. Later on, I was contacted by the DRC’s department of science which hired me as a research associate. By then, I was able to build a rocket of my conception, so I founded my own company” recalls Jean-Patrice Keka.

Troposphere 1, which was planned to be launched in April 2007, was cancelled due to technical problems. Of the five rockets he trucked to the local launch pad, the first, Troposphere 1, was soaked. The local journalists, Keka recalls, had accused him of trying to fire a rocket without the permission of the ancestors who are masters of the daily life, according to the Congolese beliefs: “I told them: no, no and no! There is no story of ancestors here, only science”. Troposphere 3, scheduled for October 12, 2007, was also a failure after Keka’s ground control hangar, which he named the Aerospace Research Center, was robbed.

The first rocket to be fired, Troposphere 2 (a fifteen kilograms and 5-centimetre diameter rocket), launched on July 10, 2007, reached an altitude of one kilometre and a half in thirty-five seconds. The second rocket, Troposphere 4 (a two hundred kilograms and 16-centimetre diameter rocket, with a thrust of one ton), launched on July 10, 2008 from Menkao (a hundred and twenty kilometres east of Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo), reached the speed of Mach 2.7 and the altitude of fifteen kilometres in forty-seven seconds. The launch of the Troposphere 4 rocket took place in the presence of the Congolese Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research, Léonard Masuga Rugamika. After the success of this launch, the Congolese government decided to get involved with the Troposphere project. Jean-Patrice Keka recalls: “The government has been supporting me morally and psychologically – but they haven’t invested a dime so far. However, they allowed me to travel to cities such as Paris and Washington so I could talk about my project to great authorities, which is a huge honour for me”.

Heavier, taller, more powerful. After three months of research, the research team has developed a new prototype, Troposphere 5. The last preparations are made on the lab’s roof before putting a coat of paint. The authorities are encouraging the research for this third launch”. “We started to build our planes like this, and our vehicles like this. Everything begins with a small intellectual adventure, a little craziness, a dream. From there, great things can happen”. The third rocket, Troposphere 5, which weighed five hundred and sixty kilograms, a two stage solid-propellant rocket with a thrust of seven tons, was launched on March 29, 2009 at seven o’clock from Menkao. This rocket, carrying a rat called Kavira, took off but deviated from its trajectory. Its goal was to reach an altitude of thirty-six kilometres and a speed of Mach 3. The cost of this rocket has been estimated at about fifty thousand dollars. Despite Troposphere 5 being equipped with an escape chute, the rat Kavira was never found and was officially reported to have died in the name of science.

From now on, there will be a biological experiment with every rocket. As I always say, I am full of ambitions. I want to make African space tourism possible, and this is why I needed to observe an animal’s behaviour at higher altitudes. We put the rat in a cage along with several electronic devices in order to analyse its reactions, its cells, and its organ functions. Although this launch didn’t meet our expectations, this experiment was very valuable for our future tests” said Jean-Patrice Keka.

Troposphere 6, a 3-stage rocket (15-meter high), was meant to carry the Njiwa satellite (in the Mpongo ship) which would have taken images of the Earth at an altitude of two hundred kilometres above sea level, twice the height of the Kármán line, generally considered as the border between outer space and the Earth’s atmosphere. Troposphere 6, nicknamed Soso Pembe or “white rooster”, fourth launch of the Troposphere rockets, was expected to happen in 2016 but has not yet seen the light of day. After six years of work, the rocket should have embarked passengers on board: some mosquitoes, flies and another rat. It should be recalled in this regard, that had it not been a regrettable failure on one of the seven engines of Troposphere 5, this rocket would have reached outer space.

Today, DTA (Troposphere and Jean-Patrice Keka) is hard at work on a space program called Galaxie that aims to put the first African satellites into low Earth orbit. Jean-Patrice Keka, this self-taught student, studied ballistics at the university; he today conducts rocket science seminars and publishes regularly specialised articles on rocketry. That is what we can say about Troposphere and Jean-Patrice Keka.