A private initiative to conquer space is ongoing in Congo-Kinshasa, thanks to the ingenuity of one man, Jean-Patrice Keka Ohemba Okese, who has federated a team of Congolese scientists. Jean-Patrice Keka is himself a scientist who studied at the Institut Supérieur des Techniques Appliquées (ISTA) in Kinshasa. He is heading a small company named DTA (Développement Tous Azimuts).
It is in 2005 that DTA started its space program named "Troposphere" that aimed at launching 5 experimental rockets that should not exceed an altitude of 36 152 m. DTA bought some land at the Menkao site in the suburbs of Kinshasa where it has set up a control center with all the necessary equipment to manufacture and launch rockets. This small "made in Congo" room has, among others, an automatic powering device, a telemetry system (speed and altitude via GPS), a video monitoring system to control the rocket trajectory and a rocket launching pad. The rockets are manufactured with scrap.
Troposphere I, the first rocket designed by DTA, should have been launched in April 2007. Due to technical reasons related to the beginnings of the space program, the rocket did not take off.
Troposphere II was successfully launched on July 10, 2007 and reached an altitude of 1,014 m in 35 seconds. It had a mass of 15.465 kg and a diameter of 5 cm.
Troposphere III should have taken off on October 12, 2007; but it was a failure.
Troposphere IV was successfully launched on July 10, 2008, one year after Troposphere II. It is exactly at 5:40 PM that the rocket took off from the pad to reach an altitude of 1,548 m in 47 seconds at the supersonic speed Mach 2.7 (2.7 times the speed of sound). It had a diameter of 16 cm, a mass of 200 kg and a one-ton thrust.
The Troposphere program was self-financed by DTA. However, after the successful launches of Troposphere II and IV, the Congolese government decided to get involved in the project. The Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research represented the Congolese government when Troposphere IV was launched. This launch was also the subject of a short documentary on a foreign TV channel (AITV-RFO), showing that the work started by Jean-Patrice Keka and his team has reached an international audience.
Troposphere V, the last rocket of a series of 5 should have been launched in October 2007. The launch was delayed for about 5 months and actual liftoff took place on March 28, 2008. The rocket was 5 m long with a total mass of 750 kg and was supposed to reach an altitude of 36,000 m (36 km) in 95 seconds (1min 35s) at Mach 3 (3 times the speed of sound). Troposphere V consisted of two levels. Level I had a thrust of 7,000 kgf while level II had a thrust of 1,000 kgf. The diameter of levels I and II was 48 cm and 16 cm respectively. The combustion time was planned to be about 6 seconds per floor (level). Troposphere V's total manufacturing cost is about $50,000 (about 25 million CFA francs). However, the launch was not a success as the rocket did not take off vertically and crashed.
Despite the failure of the last and most important of the rockets, the lesson to be drawn here is that a team of Congolese scientists has started working on a space program with very limited funds. Even NASA faced failures while trying to conquer space and the moon. This failure should not be the end of the program because the support of the Congolese government is crucial for this program to succeed one day.
There are lots of implications at stake (economical, scientific, industrial, military, etc.) for the government to support the program. The impact on employment is obvious because this program should contribute to the development of plants capable of producing chemicals such as chlorine, potassium, lime, etc., as well as the manufacturing of electronic, computer and telecommunication components... There is also a need to set up specialized companies that will manufacture state of the art launching pads, that will upgrade the existing control center which is quite rustic and train more Congolese in corollary scientific disciplines.
Can Congo-Kinshasa do it alone or would it make much more sense if such an ambition was brought up at the pan-African level so that Research and Development costs could be shared and African scientists get together to materialize this dream? Only time will tell us.