Yam farms are the launch pads for this Congolese mission to send a rat into space

Have rodent, will travel (to space).
Have rodent, will travel (to space).
Image: Reuters/Samrang Pring
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A 45-year-old father of four in Congo has been launching homemade space rockets from yam farm fields for the past 10 years, according to a story in the Wall Street Journal. He’s the country’s “best-known rocket expert,” and his name is Jean-Patrice Keka.

The Congolese government is apparently on board with his goal of sending a rat into space, which he plans to attempt again in 2016—along with a few mosquitoes and flies.

He has hired at least 30 local college graduates to work for him. His company is called Développement Tous Azimuts (DTA), or “Development in Every Sector,” and he reportedly funds it with money he made trading copper and distributing medical equipment.

The government hasn’t supported his project financially, other than sponsoring one (unsuccessful) journey to the US to seek donors. “We keep encouraging him to persevere,” one government spokesman told the WSJ, and one of his launches was broadcast on television. Keka said that every time he asked the government for money, however, “they told me that rocket science is too complicated and they don’t want a part of it.”

A 2011 article from Mental Floss says that the government offered Keka some financial assistance in 2007. When he was interviewed by Vice in 2014, he reiterated that the government “has been supporting me morally and psychologically—but they haven’t invested a dime so far. However, they allowed me to travel to cities such as Paris and Washington so I could talk about my project to great authorities, which is a huge honor for me.”

Of the four rockets he’s launched over the years, the one named Troposphere IV got the farthest—10 miles above ground, or one-sixth of the way to space—and almost carried a rat enclosed in an old Ovaltine can into the stratosphere.

According to the WSJ, Keka has spent “tens of thousands of dollars” of his own money with this specific question in mind: “What are the effects of space on Central African vermin?”

One suspects that this isn’t actually the heart of Keka’s inquiry, that perhaps he’s striving for something broader, something like proving that Congo can do what so many other countries have done, to simply reach outer space.

As one of his employees told the WSJ: “Look at all the nations that have conquered space…the Congolese, we can conquer space, too.”