A Brief History of The Congolese Space Program

Posted by Ryan on December 20th, 2010

The Democratic Republic of Congo (not to be confused with the Republic of Congo immediately to the west…. Seriously) has a surprisingly rich history of space programs and rocket launches.

The story first begins back when the DRC was known as Zaire back in the late 1970s. A German company by the name of Orbital Transport und Raketn Aktiengesellschaft (OTRAG) decided to set up a rocket testing and launch facility in the Shaba Province of Zaire and signed an agreement with the government in 1976. To sweeten the deal, Zaire would be given one experimental satellite and a reduced rate for any future rocket launches. Logistical reasons that Zaire was chosen were the low population density near the launch site and because it was near the equator where rockets are just a tad easier to put into orbit.

However, the main reason why OTRAG didn’t set up in West Germany was a combination of two factors. The first factor was the United Nations Outer Space Treaty of 1967 which states that all rockets fired in international air space must be flagged from the country of origin. This directly conflicted with the 1954 Treaty of Brussels which, in part, prohibits the production of long-range or guided missiles on German territory. Zaire had no issue with providing the rockets with a Zaire flag and they placed no restrictions on OTRAG for missile development.

Rockets were launched beginning in 1977 with both successful launches and failures. However, due to intense pressure from the Soviet Union and France, two countries none too pleased with German rocket advancement, Zaire closed the program down in 1979. The video below is one of the failures.

More after the jump!

Fast forward to 2005 when Jean-Patrice Keka, a graduate of the Institut Supérieur des Techniques Appliquées (ISTA) in Kinshasa, started a space program at his company DTA (Développement Tous Azimuts). The program was named Troposphere and aimed at launching 5 experimental rockets that would not exceed an altitude of 36 km.

Troposphere I was supposed to have been launched in April of 2007, but due to technical reasons said to relate to “the beginnings of the space program”, the rocket did not launch. However, Troposphere II was successfully launched on July 10, 2007 and reached an altitude of 1,014 meters in 35 seconds. Troposphere III scheduled on October 12, 2007 was also a failure.

On July 10, 2008, one year after the first successful launch in the program, Troposphere IV was successfully launched at 5:40 pm and reached an altitude of 1548 meters in 47 seconds at Mach 2.7. The video below is footage from the launch of Troposphere IV.

Up until this point the program was self-financed by DTA and had no government involvement, aside from a minister representing the government when Troposphere IV was launched. However, with the success of the II and IV rockets, the government decided to get involved with the project.

The launch of the Troposphere V rocket is the perhaps the best known incident regarding the Congolese space program. Troposphere V was a two stage rocket with a rat astronaut on board that was launched on March 28, 2008. It was supposed to reach an altitude of 36 km, but things went tragically wrong and the rat became the first causality of the Congolese Space Program.

If you don’t speak French, here is the exact same video, but with English subtitles.

And finally here is the same launch, but with a different angle and more detail of the fiery aftermath

So, what does the future of space flight in Congo look like? We will wait and see, but it has been reported that Jean-Patrice Keka is hard at work on Troposphere VI.

Resources and further reading:
[Popular Science March 1978]
[Munger Africana Library Notes April 1979]
[OTRAG Rocket Information]
[Jean-Patrice Keka]

  • http://twitter.com/manusferrea Manus Ferrea

    I like the nonchalant attitude everyone takes to the failed rocket launch… like, oh well, that didn’t go so well… let’s go get a beer…