Kinshasa (Democratic Republic of the Congo) – In a dark, oily hall, in a corner behind half-collapsed cars and old engines that apprentice mechanics are working on, the first rocket to fly from the African continent into space is being built. Homemade brand!
A guinea pig – known as the “Galaxionaut” – is said to be on board as a passenger and then sail back to earth in a parachute. “If it survives, we want to send the first Congolese into space,” says engineer, physicist and mathematician Patrice Keka (51).
The rough welds, the recycled oil drums as the outer shell – they seem wild. But Keka has made five launches since 2007, “Troposphère 1” to “Troposphère 5”, three of them successfully. Up to now it has come up to 36 kilometers above the earth’s surface.
“Troposphère 6” is the name of Keka’s new creation. He calculated everything exactly, he says. “It should fly up 200 kilometers, then come back down in a ballistic curve.” At an altitude of 100 kilometers, space begins.
The homemade rocket costs 125,000 euros
The resourceful scientist makes a virtue out of necessity by building his own. In the corrupt, impoverished Congo, there is no money for a state space program. 80 percent of the population live on around one euro a day. Keka raised some of the 125,000 euros he needed for the rocket himself, with scientists from Switzerland paying a third.
For comparison: The rockets of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos (57) and Virgin magnate Richard Branson (70) are significantly more expensive. Branson is said to have spent 721 million euros so far. Bezos auctioned a single place in his rocket for 22 million euros.
And this is what the rocket looks like
The building by Patrice Keka consists of three floors, a total of 15 meters high. The first floor, a metric ton of solid fuel in an outer shell made of oil drums, is supposed to give the first powerful boost together with two boosters, each containing 50 kilograms of the fuel.
The boosters should drop at a height of five kilometers, and the entire first floor at a height of ten kilometers. “By then we have to have reached Mach 2.5 speed so that the engine on the second floor can ignite,” says Keka.
It contains a rocket drive filled with 100 liters of liquid gas – and the capsule in which the galaxionaut, a brightly colored guinea pig, flies towards its fate. Its predecessor of the “Troposphère 5” did not make it, the rocket exploded in 2009 after the launch.
The plan: sensors constantly measure the temperature and pressure inside the capsule. A ventilation system will cool or heat as needed to keep the animal passenger alive, to equalize the pressure, to supply oxygen. A camera is supposed to send pictures from inside to earth via radio waves.
If the guinea pig survives, a person should fly
Like human spacemen, the animal is prepared in a research station in southern Congo. Keka: “He’s been training in a centrifuge for a year and is already in good shape.”
According to the programming, the guinea pig capsule is set down at a height of 45 kilometers. According to calculations by the physicist, it should then fly back to Kinshasa, driven by gravity. “At a height of two kilometers, a parachute should open and the galaxionaut land near our research station,” lectures Keka. A GPS system for locating the capsule is also on board.
The third floor of the rocket with the tip and another carbon dioxide engine contains a self-made satellite that is supposed to send photos of the Democratic Republic of the Congo to the control center when the fuel runs out at a height of 200 kilometers.
At the end of the day, the satellite and rocket parts, together with a stone that Swiss scientists have provided with biological traces, will fall towards the ground, most of them burn up.
“To keep the satellite up, we would have to accelerate it to seven kilometers per second, but our fuel is not yet sufficient for that. The Swiss want to see whether the biological traces can survive when they re-enter the atmosphere in order to draw conclusions about meteorites that may have brought life back to earth, ”explains Keka.
The goal: space tourism
The start is scheduled for the coming weeks. The control center, a kind of Congolese NASA, is at the village of Ngume on the outskirts of Kinshasa. Prime Minister Jean-Michel Lukonde (46) has promised to come, and President Félix Tshisekedi (58) could also be there.
Keka has ambitious goals: “If everything works, I want to put telecommunications satellites into orbit for our country – and offer space tourism.” Keka shares this dream with his wealthy colleagues Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson.