A Brief History of the Congolese Space Program

The idea was supposed to be that he is taken in by god-like entities, creatures of pure energy and intelligence with no shape or form. They put him in what I suppose you could describe as a human zoo to study him, and his whole life passes from that point on in that room. And he has no sense of time. It just seems to happen as it does in the film.

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The idea of actually attempting space travel from Congo didnt originate there, but rather with a West German company called Orbital Transport und Raketn Aktiengesellschaft (OTRAG). Founded in Stuttgart in 1975, OTRAG had a corporate vision of space trucking, or a throwaway method of transporting communication and other peaceful satellites into orbit at bargain-basement prices. The company had one major hurdle to overcome, howevermainly the amended 1954 Treaty of Brussels, which prohibited the development and launching of missiles on German soil. OTRAG made an unusual (and controversial at the time) agreement with President Mobutu Sese Seko of the Republic of Zaire in 1978 for the 25-year rental of a plot of land approximately the size of Indiana to serve as the private Cape Canaveral of Africa. The location was chosen partially for its proximity to the equator, but the willingness of a national leader to agree to a long-term lease for a large parcel of land also played a major part in Zaires selection. OTRAG-1, consisting of four propulsion modules, a nose cone, and four fins, was launched from Zaire on May 18, 1977, and achieved an altitude of 12 miles before the four engines broke off and OTRAG-1 plummeted back to Earth.

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Troposphere V was a two-stage rocket that launched on March 28, 2008. The $50,000 five-meter long craft was supposed to reach an altitude of 36 km (22 miles) in 95 seconds at Mach 3. This was also the first craft in the Congolese space program to have a passenger aboarda rat that ultimately gave its life for science, since Troposphere V failed to launch vertically and crashed shortly after liftoff. Despite this latest setback, Jean-Patrice Keka and his team are hard at work on Troposphere VI. The Congolese government is also offering its support, as a full-fledged space program could result in unlimited employment opportunities in the form of companies needed to produce the necessary chemical, electronic and telecommunication components. Keka also envisions future involvement in the project on a Pan-African level, with students across the continent choosing to study the corollary scientific disciplines in order to work together to build a state-of-the art space center.

Obviously, thats a lot to take in, but it jives with what Arthur C. Clarke wrote in the2001book, both of which were developed at the same time. In the books ending, astronaut Dave Bowman is very obviously on display in an artificial environment, which resembles a swanky hotel room. Only this room is furnished with dummy drawers that cant open, ornamental books that are simply attached to shelves, and hollow televisions, much like an IKEA showroom; the zoo connection is much clearer as a result as Clarke walks readers through this strange, faux-human habitat.

They choose this room, which is a very inaccurate replica of French architecture (deliberately so, inaccurate) because one was suggesting that they had some idea of something that he might think was pretty, but wasnt quite sure. Just as were not quite sure what do in zoos with animals to try to give them what we think is their natural environment.

Anyway, when they get finished with him, as happens in so many myths of all cultures in the world, he is transformed into some kind of super being and sent back to Earth, transformed and made into some sort of superman. We have to only guess what happens when he goes back. It is the pattern of a great deal of mythology, and that is what we were trying to suggest.

Ive tried to avoid doing this ever since the picture came out. When you just say the ideas they sound foolish, whereas if theyre dramatized one feels it, but Ill try.

The German company took their $150 million and moved to Libya for a time before going belly-up. Meanwhile, the space bug had bitten the country now known as the Democratic Republic of Congo. It bubbled under the surface for many years, particularly in the mind of Jean-Patrice Keka, who graduated from Kinshasas Institut Suprieur des Techniques Appliques (ISTA) with a degree in engineering. Keka formed his own company, Dveloppement Tous Azimuts (DTA), with an eye to eventually launching the first African satellite.

In 2005 DTA hired a small team of Congolese scientists and began a space program called Troposphere. Being a tiny, independent company, DTA couldnt afford to pay the researchers a salary comparable to what theyd earn, say, teaching at a university, but the prospect of having their name attached to such a ground-breaking project lured Congos best and brightest. The company purchased some land in Menkao, a suburb of Kinshasa, and built a control center that included an automatic powering device, a telemetry system, a video monitoring system to control the rocket trajectory and a rocket launching pad. The purchase of the necessary technological components to equip the center put a serious strain on DTAs limited finances, and as a result much of the Troposphere I rocket was built out of scrap material. The scheduled launch date of that craft was April 2007, but it was scratched due to technical reasons.

In recent months, NASA has lamented the lack of minority students interested in majoring in science and engineering fields and has now partnered with the United Negro College Fund in order to encourage college-bound African-American students to consider a career in these under-represented disciplines. If astrobiology research seems like an insurmountable goal to some U.S. students, perhaps theyd be encouraged by the efforts of the dedicated group of workers and researchers that comprises the space program in the Democratic Republic of Congo. With limited resources and an even more limited cash supply, Congolese rocket enthusiasts have been launching Troposphere crafts with varying degrees of success since 2007.

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Despite the disappointment of Troposphere I, DTA persevered and successfully launched Troposphere II on July 10, 2007. The rocket reached an altitude of 1,014 meters (.63 miles) in 35 seconds. Troposphere III suffered the same fate as model number one, but Troposphere IV managed to fly 15 km (a little over nine miles) into the atmosphere in 47 seconds on July 10, 2008, hitting a top speed of Mach 2.7. The Minister of Higher Education, University and Scientific Research, was present at this launch and upon his recommendation, the Congolese government got involved with DTAs space program and offered some financial support.

A Brief History of the Congolese Space Program

From the dizzyingly psychedelic stargate sequence to the strange hotel room and the appearance of the nebulous Star Baby,2001signs off with far more questions than answersquestions that have been discussed and dissected for 50 years. But now we might have a concrete explanation of just what was going on from Kubrick himself.

In a video posted to theEyes On CinemaYouTube page, as discoveredby io9, we see footage of filmmaker Junichi Yaoi on the telephone in 1980, with someone who is purported to be Kubrick. This was all during Yaois documentary on the paranormal, so a natural interview subject would have been Kubrick, who was makingThe Shiningat the time. During the interview, though, Yaoi asks the director what exactly happens at the end of2001, to which Kubrick gives a full explanation, as transcribed by io9:

Two years after OTRAG-1 launched, President Mobutu bowed to pressure from the Soviet Union (whod gathered intelligence tracing OTRAG to World War II-era Nazi scientists and were convinced the company was a front for gathering military intelligence) and cut its ties with OTRAG.

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As io9 points out, this Kubrick video may be a little too good to be true, especially since theres no definitive visual evidence that hes actually talking. Still, the explanation does hold weight when taken with Clarkes writing, but after 50 years and countless essays and theories on the subject, its doubtful that this will put an end to the discussions on one of the most complex endings in all of film.

Stanley Kubricks2001: A Space Odysseyis rightfully hailed as a milestone in science fiction filmmaking, but even its most ardent fans would have a tough time explaining the final scenes of the movie.


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