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The Evolutionary Resilience Issue

How’s the Congolese Space Program Doing?

We talked to Jean-Patrice Keka Ohemba Okese, a scientist who founded a company with the aim to send African rockets into space and someday put African satellites into orbit.

by Julie Le Baron
Mar 14 2014, 11:00am

Some of DTA's employees work on a rocket. Photo courtesy of Jean-Patrice Keka Ohemba Okese

Jean-Patrice Keka Ohemba Okese—also known as the “African Einstein”—is a scientist and the founder of DTA, a company based out of the Democratic Republic of the Congo that wants to build rockets that can reach outer space. That’s a pretty hefty ambition to have in a country where 70 percent of the people live in extreme poverty, but by 2008, Jean-Patrice’s Troposphere program at DTA was on a roll. The initiative had been successful in launching a couple of small experimental rockets into the atmosphere, the DRC government had come out publicly in support of the venture, and DTA’s next project, the Troposphere V, was a much more amibtious rocket that was designed to fly over 20 miles into the atmosphere.

Unfortunately, the launch of the Troposphere V was a disaster—a combustion chamber exploded, the rocket swerved into the ground as soon as it left the earth, and the rat that had been placed inside the rocket for research purposes died a cruel death. But Jean-Patrice is undaunted—DTA is hard at work on a space program called Galaxie that aims to put the first African satellites into orbit. I gave him a call to hear how all of it was going.

VICE: How did you get involved in space research?
Jean-Patrice Keka
Ohemba Okese: 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—Mobutu [Sese Seko] was president at the time—and I was 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 ISTA [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.

That was how DTA began?
Yes. So far, we've launched three experimental rockets. The first rocket reached 1,500 meters [1,640 yards], and the second one went up to 15 kilometers [nine miles]. The last one was supposed to reach 36 kilometers [22 miles], but weirdly it deviated from its course.

There was a rat on this last rocket that died when the rocket crashed. Why the animal payload?
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 behavior at higher altitudes. We put the rat in a cage along with several electronic devices in order to analyze 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.

In 2009, the Congolese government promised to support your projects, which have always depended on private funding. Does the DRC support you financially?
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 honor for me.

When is your next rocket—the Troposphere VI—going to get shot into space?
If everything goes according to plan, it should be launched this spring. I'd like my rocket to reach an altitude of two kilometers. It will be launched on the same grounds I used before, a field I bought out of my own pocket in Menkao, about 60 kilometers [40 miles] from Kinshasa. I just built a new control center there, and we took a lot of security measures to prevent any collateral incidents.

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Volume 21 Issue 3
African Einstein
Jean-Patrice Keka Ohemba Okese
Troposphere V
DTA