The African Space Agency
Part [1][2] [3]

The world is radically changing, what we took for granted is now being questioned on a daily basis. The changes are global and the predicted but sudden shift is affecting all aspects of society from our definition of racism to the way international or business relations will be handled. The African continent finds itself dragged into a tug of war between powers that have foolishly precipitated the whole planet in a new cold war, one which seems to promise to be way worse than the preceding one. Once again, Africa is seduced to take camps and alignment, and it would certainly be a mistake for the continent to choose any of the camps poised for a tedious and long winded confrontation. Concerning space exploration as well as the forays of the African continent into space, the winning approach is also a cynical one. Because time is of the essence, taking what is the best both geopolitical belligerents have to offer could be the winning bet. Time is of essence because Africa cannot afford to miss the train of progress again and more importantly, time is of essence because the continent cannot allow herself to be caught napping in a race which is key to any future modern economic and technological society. The reasons why Africa is lagging behind in so many sectors associated to progress are multiple and this is not the place to analyse them or to point the finger at culprits, though it is also a matter of importance.

Even in these modern times when dealing with European, ex colonial powers or the west in general, African Leaders and professionals are often lectured and not even treated as junior partners but much more like kids needing to be chaperoned at every single step of a project. For Africa, this time geopolitical upheaval could become our chance to finally free ourselves from the dictates which always inevitably accompany the patronage of the west. The irony is even rooted in history as for all the troubles and existential risks that they convey, cold wars are very good and even excellent, for space exploration. Judge for yourself, on the fourth of October 1957, the Soviet Union launched the first manmade satellite, 20 years later in 1977 the valiant space probe Voyager 2 blasted off on an unimaginable grand tour of the outer solar system culminating with the flyby of the ice giant Neptune in August 1989. Between 1957 and 1977, the USA and the USSR sent the first living animal into space, the first man and women visited the cosmic realm and of course the United States landed several manned crews on the moon’s surface. At the same time, the Soviets launched the first viable space stations to host long duration flights and both countries competed to explore Mars and Venus. The Cold War warriors set the solar system ablaze with their rockets and space probes because at the height of the cold war, everything seemed possible and the human race was set to have a brilliant future exploring the solar system and exploiting its resources. Then the clouds of the cold war dissipated, the enemies of yesterday joined together for a long journey of cooperation working together in low earth orbit. Today, now that we have arrived at the end of this journey, we can ask ourselves, what are the results? Since 1972 with the last Apollo flight to the moon, mankind has been locked in low earth orbit, yes we sent probes to Mars, Venus, Jupiter and Saturn but we did that before and even went further afield as since the hectic days of the cold war, no one has yet sent a mission to Uranus or Neptune. Of course Artemis is to come with the promise of new crewed moon landings but we are not here yet. Now that a cold breeze is settling on the relations between the West and countries like China and Russia, a new impetus seems to have taken grip of the space agencies and a new window of manned and robotic exploration of space as well as its exploitation seems to be on the charts.

In 2021 for example, a country like South Korea which does not make the list of the first five main space faring nations, spent 615 billion won (Around 553 million USD ) on its space activities investing in rockets and satellites, a sum that is hardly equalled by the total sum invested by the combined space agencies on the African Continent. The country having the largest budget dedicated to space related technologies is the Republic of South Africa which invested 154 million dollars from the national budget in 2022 while another major investor in space development is Nigeria with an annual budget of 68 million USD. Apart from these two agencies, Africa boasts some 22 official space agencies backed by national laws or research centres which allocate from 71 million dollars per annum to a more modest 3.5 million dollars for a country like Ethiopia. According to a study the continent has spent $3 billion on space projects since the launch of NILESAT 101 by Egypt in 1998. Certainly a very modest contribution but not to be underrated either.

Africa is not known historically to have been a forerunner in early rocket development. However though not well documented, there have been some interesting initiatives. If anyone today is told about a private space company and asks about an ambitious and successful rocket engineer, a name and a company jumps like a Pavlovian reflex to the mind, Elon Musk and Space X, but for our story, the South African Born Billionaire is out context. Moreover, the achievements of the man to whom we refer, precede those of Elon Musk by at least three decades. The year is 1970, European countries in an attempt to enter the space race teamed up and developed the experimental Rocket Europa (Programme ELDO European Launcher Devlopment Organisation) which was tested at the Australian test range of Woomera. It was a failure. The West German Economic Ministry having already invested 2.4 billion Deutschmarks (1.2 Billion Euros in Today's money. ) in the Eldo adventure, was keen to find to find a more economical way to launch satellites into orbit, thus the application for rocket development was made public.

In 1965, a young student in engineering at the University of Stuttgart, Lutz Kayser was interviewed by the German TV as the first German with his team to have successfully created a supersonic flow. The team had to get special permission from the American occupying powers as Germany was banned from development in a field which could lead to the creation of weapons of mass destruction. Asked if he with his colleagues was the Next Werner Von Braun, Kayser said that his ambition was to develop space technology by solving the problems inherent to the industry. Lutz Kayser and his team applied the venture to the Economic Ministry and despite being students, were allocated 3.5 billion DM. They came up with an innovative and radical concept using a group of cheap batch produced small rockets. The propulsion of every module consisted of a group of 36 liquid-fuelled rocket engines which were alternatively switched on and off to make the thrust vector controllable thereby cutting the cost for expensive thrust engines. Well before Space X, their motto was not high tech but low cost. At the Institute of Space Propulsion of Lampoldshausen, they accomplished two thousands combustion tests and after adopting Nitric acid as a more potent fuel, they had a proof of concept. At the other end, Europe had moved on from the Eldo failures and was actively developing the first rocket of the Ariane series which would become the work horse of ESA and is the successful rocket that we know today.

The Germans were told mainly by France, that there were no place for a concurrent project and the students were told to pack without any other form of process. That could have been the end of the story but one should never underestimate a man out to make his dream come true. Lutz Kayser would not take no for an answer. It is a crazy story, more akin to an adventure of Tintin and Captain Haddock than the creation of a modern space agency. The whole story is superbly related in an ARTE documentary which has been of extreme use for this article. Refusing defeat, Kayser turned the research team into a commercial enterprise creating in the same breath, a joint stock venture OTRAG (Orbital Transport and Rockets). We will not enter in detail into the business profile of OTRAG but suffice it to say that it was successful. Lutz Kayser played all the pages of the public relations playbook of an Elon Musk being a Playboy engineer genius, well before the latter. But OTRAG still had to find a launching site and on the advice of the International businessman Frederic Weymar, they chose to build their testing site in Zaire (Democratic Republic of The Congo today). The choice of the Congo had many advantages and in 1975, the company was offered by the Strong Man of the country, Mobutu Sese Seko, the unrestricted use of one hundred thousand square kilometres, in other words a territory as vast as the then state of East Germany. Mobutu who reigned over Zaire with an iron fist, was also a staunch ally of the Western European powers notably France and to a lesser extent the United States thereby ensuring a ‘political’ guarantee against any communist intrusion, a constant fear of the West. This situation was even more problematic as the USSR and the Warsaw Pact were heavily engaged in a hot war with neighbouring Angola.

In this no man’s land, this eclectic group of German scientists, rocket and mechanical engineers would attempt and build the first launching site of a private space company. On the isolated plateau of Kapani Tono in the middle of nowhere, they constructed a four kilometre long landing strip listed as Luvua Airport, built workshops, houses and even a convivial restaurant seating 70. They strove as much as they could to be self-sufficient indulging themselves as would Elon Musk later on, in smoking marijuana to find a peaceful nights rest. OTRAG also created the Otrak Range Air Service (Oras) and acquired four engined heavy lift planes which were used to transport the material and construction equipment necessary for the enterprise between Germany and Zaire.

Lacking a proper launch tower which was not delivered in time for their first test, they erected one made of wood and on the 17th of May 1977, eighteen months after their arrival, they were ready to perform their first test. It was a total success, the rocket climbed to an altitude of ten kilometres with a payload of one ton. If OTRAG had already attracted attention, this success would eventually become one of the main reason of their demise. The press covered the event with admiration but also with concern asking if the Germans were trying to acquire the technology of missiles despite the international ban against their country. Immediately the different intelligence agencies of the west took the OTRAG team more seriously because if before it was all theoretical, now they had a rocket. This interest was not only from the western powers as only a few days after the first test of the OTRAG rocket, the USSR launched their intelligence gathering satellites Kosmos 922 and Komos 932, whose orbital path took them directly over the test site of the Germans in Africa. But besides the obvious fact of the inevitable financial benefits that could be harvested if the enterprise was successful, why did Mobutu allow the presence of a German private rocket company in Zaire?

Marshal Mobutu had by this time made his transition to the total dictator that he is so often depicted as, and he understood the immense prestige for his country to have a satellite launching facility in Africa which would raise his terribly impoverished country to the level of giants like the United States or the USSR.All the while, Europe was barely doing its first steps in the promising market of transporting satellites in Earth orbit. And certainly Mobutu Sese Seko was a man who understood prestige knowing in which ways it changed the world’s view of the USSR when they put the first man and woman in space, he also knew what indescribable wealth of goodwill the moon landings gave to the United States. That being said, one of the first thing Mobutu said to OTRAG was that he wanted the first satellite pictures so that he could protect his borders. Frederic Weymar, the man who opened the country up to the OTRAG scientists, was internationally renowned as being the man who had brought to Africa, the famous media box office success, the clash of the titans ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ between Foreman and Ali. He judiciously arranged a contract guaranteeing to OTRAG total control of the site up to 2025. Mobutu knew that by this date, Zaire could own the only spaceport in Africa. If that had been the case, the history of the Congo as well as the one of privately owned space companies, would have been totally different.

From there on despite going full steam ahead in their development, OTRAG suffered from a negative media campaign in the western media. During a TV program ‘The Sky is For Everyone’, Lutz Kayser declared that he would launch satellites for anybody. If the USA and the USSR disagreed on almost everything, they at least shared the common view that it was out of question that the rest of the world could know what they were up to by launching their own spy satellites. The articles appearing on the press were hard hitting. The Daily of the 22nd of October 1978 warned Achtung! OTRAG! (Danger, OTRAG!). While saying that it was a bad dream but also all true, after all the other articles appeared in the German local press, they debated the ‘Mysterious Kayser Empire’. The most disturbing power to seriously impede the future development of OTRAG was the French Government which considered the company of Lutz Kayser as a serious potential competitor to its Ariane launcher. Unfortunately for OTRAG, France was also the main sponsor and supporter of the Mobutu regime. Instead of competing or debating the validity of the OTRAG project, the French went about discrediting the work of Kayser. The now defunct but then prime French TV channel Antenne 2, pondered if Kayser was dangerous or if he was a charlatan or a genius ,something that few decades later someone named Elon Musk would have to learn to live with. The issue of Figaro on the 21st of February 1978, voiced the real concern of the French, they were worried that Africa would soon have a Cape Kennedy (Referring to the US launching base of Cape Canaveral) and dubbing the OTRAG system the ‘Rocket of the Poor’. L’ Humanite, another French publication, was furious that the Federal Republic of Germany could have found a way to circumvent the Bruxelles Treaty of 1954 which interdicted Germany from developing and testing on its territory, guided rockets capable of travelling long distances. The newspaper even went out of its way with the catchy title ‘Nuclear Rockets in Africa’.From Stockholm to Canberra, the fear of a ‘Nazi Bomb’ inflamed the imagination but it was the New Scientist which summed it up the best on the 23th of March 1978, by publishing that a cheap rocket that could launch military reconnaissance satellites for developing countries had become involved in a tangled web of Nazi rocket scientists, Penthouse magazine, KGB disinformation and a treaty reminiscent of the height of colonialism in Africa.

Indeed it was the magazine Penthouse among all of them, which revealed to the public in a twisted article, the OTRAG saga, and it was from there that all the other publications took the references in the first instance. The USSR was well aware and part of the media campaign backlashing OTRAG which was screaming through its controlled press to anyone who wanted to listen, that West Germany was building the ‘Largest’ rocket base in Zaire. This impressed a public which vividly remembered the horrors of the Second World War going so far as to accuse OTRAG of being in the process of building a colonial empire. Anyone watching the Arte documentary with the insights, can see how these accusations were laughable and how a supposed free press can distort reality to the point of ridiculousness and in that sense, it is not very different with what is happening today with the war in Ukraine. It is even incredible to think that OTRAG was one of the reasons that the enemies of Mobutu used for justifying the planned invasion of Zaire. Medard Mbaka, leader of the National Front for the Liberation of the Congo (FNLC), said that the military character of OTRAG was a scarcely concealed fact and one of the objectives of the Guerrillas was to remove Otrag. The concern over this was very real and on the eve of preparations for a second test launch, OTRAG was prompted to reinforce security measures. It came up with a plan capable of evacuating all the Europeans from the plateau by air in 29 minutes flat, after the alert was given. It was in this atmosphere of insecurity that the team of Lutz Kayser prepared their second test launch.

Anyone in the business of rockets will tell you that failures are inevitable and are almost routine in the process of developing a reliable orbital launching platform so knowing this state of affairs ,Ortrag did not make more than the token announcement about the test launch. Mobutu however, had been informed that a test would effectively take place by the Governor of Lumumbashi. The Marshal probably thought it was an excellent occasion to turn the tables and to shift public opinion in his favour. He appeared unannounced at the airport of Luvua landing in his Hercules and accompanied by all his family and administration, as well as an important delegation of foreign journalists. He was evidently here for a public relations coup as proven by the interviews he gave that day. Mobutu declared that the presence of the German scientists did not bother him at all and on the contrary, it was beneficial for Zaire. They were developing the place with infrastructure and agriculture as well as job creation as at this moment, OTRAG was employing some 200 locals as manpower and a tiny trained guard unit. The cherry on the cake aimed at convincing the world of the peaceful nature of the rocket system and its viability and so as to muzzle support from other countries in the world as potential clients to counter the international backlash, was the test launch itself. At the end of the countdown, the rocket raised a few meters and slowly rotated on its axis and resolutely pointed to crash down with a resonating bang on the floor of the ravine. OTRAG did not survive this failure, a doubly important failure because of the presence of Mobutu. Incapable of resisting the pressure from the French on which he depended militarily, Mobutu finally cancelled OTRAG’s contract in 1979 and the French allegedly eased the conscience of the Marshal with money and weapons.

This sad story had a tragic end as three weeks before their departure from Zaire, seven members of the team died in a boating accident which has never been completely explained. The adventure of OTRAG is a critical lesson for Africa as it showcases the hypocrisy of the superpowers when their interests are at stake and their tendency to not resolve these problems by negotiation but by threats. It also shows the power wielded by the media then, and that once they have decided to distort information, the perception of the truth then became the determining factor. In fact if geographically Zaire was ideal for a spaceport, politically it was a dead end. The bet of Mobutu could only have paid off if at least one of the superpowers was on his side. With all of them against him, OTRAG did not stand a chance.

Being a spacefaring nation means first and foremost possessing a working launch system and no country in Africa has acquired this capacity. Once again, history could have been very different. In an article dated the 27th of March 2021, we conveyed to our readers that the Republic of South Africa had once completed a military nuclear program and effectively produced six atomic gun type bombs. It came as a surprise to many of our readers as this story was not well known at the time, at least concerning our readers outside of South Africa (Even in South Africa some locals are still dumfounded by the story). One thing that we pointed out is that upon completion, the South African’s, lacking a viable missile as a carrier vector to deliver their atomic devices, chose instead to deploy their weapon using bombers like the English Electric Canberra or the Blackburn Buccaneer. But the South Africans did not abandon the idea and continued their research with the clear intention of deploying a capable intercontinental ballistic missile. South Africa had already developed and fielded RSA-1 and RSA-2 which were intermediate range ballistic missiles with a range of 1,100 and 1,900 KM respectively. Both could carry a warhead mass of 1.5 ton. If the Government of Pretoria had no other options to deliver its then bulky atomic weapons, it had however developed with the help of the Israelis, a capable Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (Israel who had already partnered with the government of Pretoria in the creation of their atomic weapons, provided the South Africans with the design schematics and provided technical assistance as Pretoria did not want to simply acquire Israeli missiles). The company Armaments Corporation of South Africa (Armscor) created the subsidiary Kentron (Denel Dynamics now) which developed RSA -1 & 2. The third rocket of the RSA series, RSA 3, was developed by the Houwteq organisation at Garbouw, Cape Town . South Africa even developed an indigenous solid propellant production capability to support its missile program. In the role of an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile, RSA-3 was capable of delivering a payload of 340 Kg on Washington, and a Warhead of 400 Kg on Moscow, a remarkable capability. Not having the right size nuclear warhead to fix atop this missile, the South Africans rethought the concept as a purely orbital launcher able to place in orbit observation satellites or a small surveillance satellite of no more than 330 kg. RSA-3 was a three stage solid-fueled orbital launch vehicle; it had a Mass of 23 and half tons for a height of 17.65 meters. RSA-3 had an apogee of 210 Km. The rocket was launched for the first time on the seventh of July, 1989 and the last launch was registered on the eleventh of November, 1990. Modelled after the Israeli Jerico missile, RSA-3 was able however to place twice the payload of its Israeli counterpart in orbit. This was due to the launch azimuth of the South African rocket which was more favourable than the west retrograde launch of an orbital vehicle from Israel.

Pressing forward, the South Africans started the first phase of development of the launcher following the RSA series. RSA-4 was able to put 770 kg in orbit or deliver a warhead of 700 kg at any given location on the planet, a payload double the one of its predecessor. This improvement was due a new optimized first stage comparable to the US peacekeeper missiles. RSA-4 developed a thrust of two thousand kilo newton for a gross mass of 80 tons and with a height of 23.50 meters and it could climb to an apogee of 400 Km.

So what happened? Not only did the Republic of South Africa build an orbital rocket but it also built the launching site on the southern part of Capetown. This according to American Intelligence sources was a copy of the Israeli launch site in the Negev desert. On the 5th of July 1989, Armscor announced that it had proceeded to a successful test of a booster rocket from the test range of Overberg. If it was a positive step towards developing an effective launcher, it was however not to the taste of the United States. To be fair to the US, they had valid reasons to worry as later it was revealed that RSA had effecticely pursued a complete nuclear weapons program, a fact that would not have escaped the intelligence services of the US well before it was made known to the public. From there on, the logical assumption was that the South African Defence Force was likely to develop in the future a missile capable of delivering a nuclear warhead. That was undeniably in the thinking of the South African military planners, as was later revealed by different declassified intelligence documents. However by 1991, South Africa had renounced any military nuclear ambitions and as we saw previously RSA-3, was not able to deliver the ‘nukes’ the Republic of South Africa had in its arsenal. From there on, the intention of using the rocket solely for launching satellites was to all accounts credible. In September 1991, South Africa was well on her way to abolish all the past apartheid laws and in July of the same year, had joined the Treaty of the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons as a non-nuclear state. This did not deter the US from sanctioning the country for importing missile technology from Israel. The then South African President F.W de Klerk, protested the sanctions but to no avail.

It is important to note that De Klerk has been hailed as having taken the deliberate choice to dismantle the nuclear arsenal, an unique event in history. Some people parallel this move of the South Africans to the one of Ukraine returning the nuclear arsenal scattered on its territory to Russia. In fact during a time in the early 90’s, Ukraine was the third nuclear power if one judged only the amount of nuclear devices that were deployed there. This situation was shared by many countries who gained independence after the implosion of the Soviet Union. In that sense, Ukraine never possessed nuclear weapons on its own, those belonged to Russia, the internationally recognized successor state to the USSR. In fact Moscow retained complete command and control and Kiev never had access to the authorization codes necessary to launch them. In a twist of history, the Ukrainian state even used blackmail regarding the return of these weapons in exchange for numerous economic advantages from Russia. This fact makes the decision of the South African Government an unparalleled decision in history. But the less laudable motivation of de Klerk and coincidently, those of the European powers and the US, was the fear to have a Black ruled South Africa armed with nuclear weapons. If one can definitely argue the wisdom of de Klerk’s decision, it was however almost impossible for Nelson Mandela to prevent the dismantlement of the weapons and their shipment to the United Kingdom. It was undeniably a precondition for a transition from the apartheid system to the new democratic rule.

By 1993, South Africa had scrapped its nuclear program and president de Klerk announced that the government had put an end to its space program due to doubts about its commercial viability. Admiral Andre who did an interesting simulation of the RSA orbital rocket on Kerbal space, voiced scepticism on the validity of the reasons given by South Africa for abandoning the project and described this decision as a tragedy (which it was) not only for the country, but for the continent as a whole. Western diplomats back in the 90’s also reported the heavy pressure put on Pretoria by the United States to abandon its space program. Nelson Mandela became President in 1994 and took de Klerk as his deputy, but during the two or three years preceding his election as the head of the country, he had several meetings with the government of de Klerk to facilitate transition. Is it conceivable that if he had joined forces with de Klerk, they could together have withstood the pressure and saved the one and only valid space program on the continent?

We will probably never have an answer to the question but still, after having utterly destroyed its launch site(Note Overberg is still an active test range but not anymore used as a satellite launch site) and relegated its rockets to museums, South Africa announces from time to time its intention to rebuild from scratch, an indigenous capacity to launch commercial satellites into orbit but to this date, no project was adopted.

Continue Reading Part [2]

Part [1][2] [3]
Science Articles From The Same Author in The International Outsider

Pluto Disruptive Planet.

The New Space Race.

Forgotten Pathfinders.

Women In Space Matter. (Part 1)

Dwarf Planets.

South African Nuclear Weapons.

Do We Have To Fear AI?

Cooperation in Space

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