As a boy, Congolese engineer Jean-Patrice Kéka desired was to be special and to live his dreams. He proved this as a boy by making a sailplane out of raffia, radio transmitters out of nails, and then taking his passion in aeronautics a step further by launching his first rocket using matches.
His ambition has been to help Congolese people understand the importance of space science. But, in a country where many people live on less than $2 per day and war drums are frequently heard in rural villages, many people prioritize bread-and-butter matters. The uniting factor of the invention he is pursuing is his people’s lowest priority. He is adamant, though, that if he can get his invention into space someday, it may be the thread that brings everyone together, even if just for a few hours.
In 2007, he launched his first rocket, Troposphere 1, into space. According to Le Monde, it was 1 meter tall and weighted 20 kg. Despite the launch failed because the homemade rocket was insufficiently insulated and precipitation tampered with its engine system, he learned from his failures and applied them to his second rocket, Troposphere 2.
Troposphere 2 was a resounding success. It flew at a height of 1,500 meters. Enthused by this record of success, he set the goal of launching Troposphere 4, which was significantly heavier than the previous two. It weighed 250 kg and had a range of almost 1,500 kilometers.
But his next ambition, to launch a larger rocket, Troposphere 5, into space, ran into trouble because it was larger and heavier than the others. He hoped it would travel 36 kilometers, but the combustion chamber caught fire before it got there.
In 2009, Kéka vividly remembered the rocket skidding off its trajectory and crashing to the earth. He believes that the hallmark of science is a two-barreled pole with successes and failures. Today, the larger goal remains unachieved; he intends to get his Troposphere out of the earth’s surface at a height of between 8 and 15 kilometers.
He attracted the necessary international attention while working on a 15-meter-long rocket capable of reaching 200 kilometers above the ground. His tenacity and unrelenting ambition were captured on video by Swiss documentary filmmakers Christian Denisart and Daniel Wiss, who assisted him in raising approximately €25,000 for his project through a participatory finance system.
He met Claude Nicollier, Switzerland’s first astronaut, who interacted with and motivated him. He is hopeful that his Troposphere 6 will be a success when it launches this year. He hopes to explore the feasibility of microbes entering space with the help of a Swiss microbiologist. Despite opposition from animal rights advocates to his use of rats in this experiment, he remains steadfast and wants his handmade rockets to sign his name in the skies.