One man's personal space race turns vermin into astronauts

November 2, 2015, 2:01pm


Jean-Patrice Keka has launched a series of rockets from this rural Congo site amid yam farms over the past 10 years. Photo: Drew Hinshaw/The Wall Street Journal

By Drew Hinshaw

AEROSPACE RESEARCH CENTER, Congo—The mission: Put a rat in space.

For 10 years, Congo’s best-known rocket expert has been launching projectiles from yam farms here near the village of Menkao. His ground-control center, a corrugated-metal shed with a weather vane, contains a row of aging 11-inch televisions and desktop computers with floppy drives.

There are relics of past flights, like the Ovaltine can in which a local rat nearly became the first Congolese animal to touch the stratosphere.

None of five craft engineered by the rocketeer, 45-year-old Jean-Patrice Keka, have reached space from the launch zone he built with his own money, two hours by dirt road from the capital of Kinshasa.

But Mr. Keka’s next creation, Troposphere VI, is more advanced. He designed the three-stage-engine rocket, nicknaming it Soso Pembe or “white rooster,” to power 120 miles up, 60 miles beyond what is considered the inner boundary of outer space. There will be passengers aboard the spaceship, six years in the making, when he launches it next year: “A few mosquitoes, a few flies,” he says, and another rat.

“I will do my utmost to bring that rat back alive,” he says. “But if not, there’s a lot of rats in Kinshasa.”

Mr. Keka funded his operation, naming it Development in Every Sector, with fortunes he says he made during the world’s commodities boom. His day jobs trading copper and distributing medical equipment don’t fully engage him intellectually, so he dabbles in space flight.

Troposphere 3

The self-made rocket scientist studied ballistics in university, gives seminars on rocketry and self-publishes academic papers on the subject.

“I’ve been following his experiments with so much interest,” says Lambert Mende, a Congolese-government spokesman. “We keep encouraging him to persevere.”

Mr. Keka doesn’t have any official role or government funding, he says. But his launches, replayed on television countrywide, have made him a national hero.

Hundreds of Congolese, locals say, come to see his rockets reach for space: villagers, soldiers, journalists, government ministers and generals. Some collapse in prayer on liftoff, says Joseph Dimuntu, 77, who farms yams nearby and says he wasn’t among the prostrated.

“This is what development looks like,” Mr. Dimuntu says. “You Americans, don’t you do things like this?”

Mr. Keka’s endeavors bespeak an old truth in rocketry: It takes failures to succeed.

Of the five rockets he has trucked to their launchpads, the first, Troposphere I, got rain in its fuel compartment and didn’t ignite. Journalists on-site, he says, accused him of trying to fire a rocket without permission from the ancestors who lord over daily life in Congolese religion.

“I told them, ‘no, no, no. There is no story of ancestors here,’ ” he says. “ ‘This is science.’ ”

The second shot a mile up. He abandoned the third Troposphere after his ground-control shed, which he named Centre de Recherche Aérospatiale, or Aerospace Research Center, was burglarized. It still sits on its rusting launchpad.

The fourth rose 10 miles, he says, a sixth of the way to space, gracing the stratosphere. “That’s when they saw that I’m a little bit serious.”

In 2009, he dispatched Troposphere V, a 1,576-pound, two-stage solid-fuel rocket designed to climb 23 miles. On board were computers to send back video, GPS data and flight readings—and a rat, caught from the wild, in the Ovaltine-can passenger pod.

The rocket shot up, turned sideways and smashed into a mountain. The rat, his website says, “disappeared in the name of science.”

The father of four says he has spent tens of thousands of dollars to answer the question: What are the effects of space on Central African vermin?

“Suppose that one day, on an American rocket or space shuttle, by happenstance, a mosquito gets on board,” he says. “And as we’re talking about one day building a lunar colony, if a mosquito by chance arrives there, will it be able to procreate?”

Mr. Keka is building Troposphere VI in the east of Congo, where he does much of his work. A local mining company rents him precision cutting machines and other appliances he uses to mold rocket parts, although, he says, “maybe they don’t know what I’m doing.”

His space center looks out over a new bunker, built underground in case a rocket tumbles back. A soldier he pays to prevent burglary sometimes sleeps inside.

He has hired about 30 Congolese college graduates who often work in the engineering unit of his space program, based in room 205 of Kinshasa’s Hotel Relax.

“Look at all the nations that have conquered space,” says one, Makaya Kabu, as he works on rocket wiring. “The Congolese, we can conquer space, too.”

Mr. Keka has been thinking about rockets for three decades. At 17, in the crowded Congolese capital, he launched a rocket fueled with hundreds of shaved-off matchstick heads. The screecher whistled over the neighborhood and, within hours, police yanked him from his home, he says.

Later, military officials let him into a military library, where he read old army manuals on ballistic rocketry.

For years, he tried to persuade the government to back him. “Every time I went to see the government,” he says, “they told me that rocket science is too complicated and they don’t want a part of it.”

“No,” he says, “It’s not too complicated.”

But by 2008, his launches had appeared on television. Impressed, Congo’s science ministry flew him to the U.S. to seek donors, he says, but he found none. The science minister didn’t respond to inquiries.

A cable from the U.S. embassy in Kinshasa, published by WikiLeaks, refers to Mr. Keka’s request for financial help: “Post generally supports economic programs with more of a focus on poverty reduction, macroeconomic stability, or improvements to the investment climate.”

“They have a point,” Mr. Keka says of the embassy, which didn’t respond to Journal inquiries. “But I know that after I launch what I’m about to launch, they’re going to help me. They’ll see.”