From Outer Space to CONGO: A Chronology

In 1994, as part of NASA’s Mission to Planet Earth, the space shuttle Endeavour was launched from Florida on two missions. On board was a high powered, spaceborne imaging radar able to scan the planet’s environmental “hot spots”, which included the mountain gorilla’s Virunga habitat in Rwanda. The first shuttle mission blasted off from Kennedy Space Centre on April 9. Four days later as Endeavour orbited over Rwanda, its radar pointed at the mist-shrouded habitat of the last remaining mountain gorillas, a massacre was unfolding in the surrounding countryside with merciless efficiency. Over the next 100 days more than 800,000 people would be brutally murdered in the Rwandan Genocide.

Two years into my job as executive director of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund UK and I was simultaneously experiencing both the highest and lowest points of my career. Articulating those perplexing and conflicting emotions will have to wait. In the meantime, here’s a chronology of the events.

January 1994

A fax arrives from the Executive Director of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund (DFGF), Dr. Dieter Steklis in New Jersey, in DFGF UK’s office in London, announcing plans underway at Rutgers University’s Remote Sensing Unit. Dr. Scott Madry, the unit’s chief scientist, hopes to use technology at NASA to obtain high-resolution radar images of the Virunga Volcanoes in Rwanda, one of two habitats sustaining the world’s last remaining mountain gorillas, and where the late Dian Fossey set up the Karisoke Research Center. The radar images will create 3-D maps to compliment the Global Positioning System (GPS) technology being used to monitor endangered gorillas in Rwanda. NASA/JPL have agreed, tentatively, to include the volcanoes on the list of sites to be ‘imaged’ by their Spaceborne Imaging Radar aboard the space shuttle Endeavour in April and August 1994. 

At 3am, as the lights go up in Ronnie Scott’s in Soho at the end of a Fourth World concert, DFGF co-director Jillian Miller and I see Peter Elliot, the world’s leading ape actor, who tells us he’s going to Hollywood to discuss a new gorilla movie with Kennedy/Marshall, producers of Jurassic Park, ET, The Flinstones and the Indiana Jones movies. “They’re making a film of Michael Crichton’s high-tech thriller, CONGO,” he says, “set in the Virunga mountains among the mountain gorillas.” 

February 1994

Dr Scott Madry relays letter from Ellen O’Leary at JPL, saying, “Unfortunately, we are unable to acquire data over the Karisoke area in Rwanda, nor does it appear that the site will be covered by other data-takes in the area.” I contact Arthur C. Clarke in Colombo, Sri Lanka, who I’d met in my youth. He is delighted to help, says he knew Louis Leakey in the 1960’s, had been following Dian Fossey’s story and the plight of mountain gorillas for years, recalls dandling Sigourney Weaver as a baby. He immediately faxes Dr Bill McLaughlin, Deputy Manager Astrophysics and Fundamental Physics Missions at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

“Gorillas in the Mist – Help! Please contact Ellen O’Leary of SIR-C Mission Planning/Radar Data Center re correspondence with Scott Madry of Rutgers concerning planned survey of Rwanda. It’s vital to the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund but now looks like being cancelled. I hope it can be re-instated, it would be wonderful publicity for JPL/NASA! I’m particularly interested as I must have known Sigourney Weaver as a little girl. I often visited her father Pat when he was boss of NBC.” 

Two weeks later JPL confirm DFGF’s place on both missions. 

Reading Michael Crichton’s book, CONGO, I discover uncanny parallels between DFGF’s use of space technology and the high-tech ERTS expedition into central Africa described in the book. “At ERTS, we deal mostly in remote sensing, satellite photographs, aerial run-bys, radar side scans.” I immediately contact Sam Mercer, producer of CONGO, to offer the results of our forthcoming space shuttle missions for use in his movie. Mercer is keen. 

I contact Michael Bright at BBC Natural History unit and Keenan Smart at National Geographic TV to discuss possible live feed during August space shuttle mission between Arthur C. Clarke in Sri Lanka, DFGF’s honorary chair, Sigourney Weaver in New York, astronauts on Endeavour, and gorillas in the Virungas. I track down Sigourney Weaver, who’s making Death of the Maiden with Roman Polanski in Paris, to ask if she would be willing to participate. 

March 1994

Goat Cay, Sigourney’s New York company, faxes saying, “It is fine to use her name in conjunction with the NASA satellite fly-by’s of the Virunga Mountains. As you know, it is impossible for her to commit to any kind of interview or satellite hook-up later this year because she doesn’t know where she will be.” 

Our relationship with CONGO develops. They agree to send Mike Backes, a screenwriter and computer graphics wizard to a meeting at the Remote Sensing Center at Rutgers University in New Jersey. I also attend, along with Dr Madry, key DFGF staff, Dr Robert Sullivan, assistant environmental scientist at the Argonne National Laboratory, and John Rubin, a producer from National Geographic TV. Rubin confirms Nat Geo is interested in the live broadcast. Mike Backes is enthusiastic about using the radar image and the Geographic Information System (GIS) they’re creating at the Remote Sensing Center, in the film CONGO

April 1994

President Juvenal Habyarama’s plane is shot down over Kigali. The Rwanda Genocide begins. 

Three days later Endeavour is launched from Cape Kennedy. NASA reports, live on the Internet, that the shuttle ‘imaged’ the Virungas on Day 4 of the mission. 

DFGF’s expatriate staff are evacuated from Rwanda. Education officer, Dr Louis Nzeyimana, his wife and baby are trapped amidst the killing in Kigali. We don’t hear from them for days.

Evacuated gorilla conservationists hold an emergency meeting in Nairobi to decide a plan of action. DFGF UK sends a Channel 4 film crew in with Dieter Steklis to cover the meeting. 

Silence from NASA/JPL on the Virunga image; rumours abound that they are worried about being accused of spying.

I ask Arthur C. Clarke to intervene again. He contacts Bill McLaughlin at JPL.

Dr Ellen Stofan at JPL replies, “We are happy to report that data were successfully acquired on two passes over the site, on Orbit 58 and Orbit 171. Images have been processed at JPL for the first data take and will be transmitted to the research team at Rutgers for analysis… We look forward to attempting to image the Karisoke site on our second flight in August.” 

At Primates Restaurant in London, Jillian and I meet Sam Mercer, producer of CONGO, and Paul Pay, location manager — both on their way back from East Africa. They confirm CONGO will use the Virunga radar image and make a donation to DFGF, between $25,000 and $50,000, depending on its quality and duration of use. 

DFGF holds emergency meeting of its International Coordinating Committee at Edinburgh Zoo to plan Emergency Programme for maintaining mountain gorilla conservation in Rwanda. 

May 1994

DFGF launches Emergency Appeal. Among the famous names who generously respond are Arthur C. Clarke, Douglas Adams, and John Aspinall. 

DFGF’s education officer, Dr Louis Nzeyimana, his wife and baby daughter successfully escape Rwanda by road to Goma where they catch a flight to Nairobi, Kenya. In 48 hours I secure a place for him on a conservation education course in Gloucestershire, free air tickets on British Airways, and six-month visas for the whole family (after I managed to get the British High Commission in Nairobi to open on a Saturday). They arrive safely at London Heathrow airport. 

NBC interview Dr Nzeyimana at DFGF’s London office for Now Magazine, but do not use it. International press is generally reluctant to cover the plight of gorillas in the context of the horrific human tragedy in Rwanda. 

NASA/JPL release a black and white spaceborne image of the Virunga habitat to Rutgers University along with a press release. London office receives a fax of the image (which we call the $50 million fax). Minimal press coverage on US East Coast. John Holliman at CNN does excellent piece for Prime News about Endeavour’s mission and its benefits to the gorillas. 

June/July 1994

The heat is on to send CONGO the Virunga image before the studio’s mid-June deadline. But JPL is experiencing difficulties translating the space shuttle tapes. As Dr Madry is at the International Space University in Barcelona, I contact Dr Ellen Stofan at JPL and try to speed up the process. She is keen on the Hollywood connection and so I put Mike in direct contact with her. CONGO extends its deadline to mid-September. Karisoke researcher, Alistaire McNealage visits Remote Sensing Center in New Jersey to help fine tune the details of the Virunga GIS.

Meet Gerry Lewis, Steven Spielberg’s right hand man in Europe, and CONGO’s UK distributer, to discuss the possibility of a UK premier and a licensing deal to benefit the gorillas. 

Channel 4’s Equinox express interest in making a documentary about DFGF’s use of space technology to save gorillas. 

DFGF’s emergency plan to set-up an interim base in Zaire is just getting underway when a million Rwandan refugees cross the border through Goma. Exiled Karisoke director, Dr Pascale Sicotte hastily sets up a special camp in Bukima on the Zaire side of the Virungas, solely for Karisoke anti-poaching rangers who have joined the exodus, and establishes preferential treatment for the men from the Zairean authorities. 

JPL invites Arthur C. Clarke, Sigourney Weaver and me to Endeavour‘s August launch. 

August 1994

Rich Clifford, Astronaut aboard the Endeavour during the April mission, sends a quote: 

”Radar imagery of the gorilla enclave in Rwanda during the STS-59 mission proved the value of the Spaceborne Imaging Radar in monitoring and evaluating earth’s resources. Visual observations of the enclave during the mission were usually obscured by clouds or darkness. The imaging radar could ‘see’ through the obscuration and thus valuable information was obtained that will be analysed by the investigators.”

Arthur C. Clarke also sends a quote:

”It has been said that the most valuable prize the Apollo astronauts brought home was the famous photograph of our beautiful blue world, like a fragile X-mas tree ornament hanging in the empty blackness of space. It taught us to respect and cherish our home planet, and to care for its natural heritage. Orbiting satellites – the tools of the Space Age – now allow us to study the surface of our planet in detail which has never been possible from the ground. We can observe the growth of crops, deforestation, pollution and many other processes that are impacting the environment. To give one dramatic example, radar carried on the Space Shuttle has produced the first detailed maps of the habitat of the mountain gorillas in Africa – a feat previously impossible, because, as Dian Fossey’s famous book title indicated, gorillas live in a mist which only radar waves can penetrate. The new maps allow rangers, equipped with hand held GPS (Global Positioning Systems), which also depend on satellites, to locate themselves accurately, and to protect the few hundred remaining gorillas from the poachers who have mercilessly exterminated them. I am particularly pleased to have been associated with the efforts of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund of the UK in this enterprise, which may seem ironic in view of Rwanda’s horrendous human tragedy. Yet, when men are behaving worse than beasts, perhaps there is some hope for our species, if some of its members are prepared, against almost impossible odds, to protect these harmless, gentle cousins of ours.” 

Arthur confirms he’ll attend Endeavour’s launch at Cape Kennedy on August 18, his first trip outside Sri Lanka in a decade. I relay NASA/JPL’s invite to Sigourney Weaver to attend launch at Cape Kennedy. Goat Cay send regrets. 

In a telephone conversation with Mike Backes he expresses his concern that Rutgers GIS – still lacking the April shuttle image – is too low in resolution. 

I have dinner at Le Caprice in Piccadilly with Sam Mercer, Gerry Lewis and Jill Fullerton-Smith, who’s making a documentary to go with CONGO’s release. Sam says DFGF shouldn’t worry about its involvement with CONGO, “all will be fine.” 

On returning to LA, Sam confirms Mike is now working directly with JPL who are “regenerating a higher definition/clearer image for Mike and Silicon Graphics to review. Perhaps this will help to settle/resolve Mike’s concerns.” 

After reading an article in Sunday Times about cheap, low-orbit satellites being used as a means for e-mail communication in remote places, I get in touch with SatelLife in Boston. They operate a low-orbit satellite and a communication system whereby anyone with a remote ground station using UHF radio can send e-mail messages to anyone on the Internet.

At NASA’s request, Arthur C. Clarke agrees to participate in a launch-day press conference at Kennedy Space Center to promote ‘gorilla missions’. 

We receive a breathtaking colour image of the Virunga radar data and JPL photo caption. 

DFGF’s executive director, Dr Dieter Steklis and conservationist Ian Redmond take a BBC Nature crew to Rwanda to assess the situation in the Virungas and ensure the safety of the mountain gorillas. They return to the ransacked Karisoke Research Center with six anti-poaching rangers, on the same day Endeavour is due to launch. 

Jillian and I fly to Florida to attend the launch of Endeavour at Cape Kennedy with Arthur C. Clarke and his family. Launch aborted at T-0.42 seconds. Great disappointment! Press conference goes ahead anyway, with ACC, Dr Charles Elachi (JPL’s chief radar guy) and Netzin Gerald, DFGF’s GPS scientist. Because of the launch abort, very little press coverage is generated.

Fly on to Denver to meet DFGF US director and David Aguilar, from the Ball Corporation who developed the radar imaging hardware for JPL, to discuss sponsorship opportunities. 

September 1994

UN convoy carrying the remaining anti-poaching rangers back from Zaire is ambushed by Interahahmwe in Goma. Jean-Bosco Bizumuremyi is badly injured. He was quoted during the incident, saying, “We are Rwandans, not Hutu, not Tutsi. We are working for a time when there is no more war in Rwanda, for the future of our country as well as the gorillas.”

Dr Bill McLaughlin writes piece on DFGF’s involvement in the space programme for Britain’s Spaceflight magazine. 

CONGO asks DFGF to provide publicity material as set dressing for the playroom of the film’s lead gorilla character, Amy, promising us a credit at the end of the film. 

We get a tentative ‘yes’ from Princess Anne to attend CONGO UK premiere. Jillian and I visit Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd – who manufacture the low-orbit, micro-satellites – and tour their ground station and labs. They confirm that, through the US company SatelLife, DFGF can acquire a relatively inexpensive and portable satellite ground station that will allow us to be in daily contact, via e-mail, with our rangers at Karisoke from anywhere in the world. 

October 1994

The David Shepherd Conservation Foundation agree to fund the purchase of a satellite ground station for Karisoke.

CONGO begins principal filming in Hollywood. 

Endeavour is finally launched, and in a blaze of publicity for the endangered mountain gorillas. CNN run a piece with footage from Karisoke. ABC interview the astronauts as they orbit above the gorilla habitat. Arthur C. Clarke faxes saying “Delighted Endeavour is doing its thing!” 

Query from Eric Behr, on the Internet newsgroup, newsgroup, reads: “A local student newspaper carried a headline today; ‘Shuttle Aims Radar at Gorillas’. NASA had better prepare to deal with the Humane Society…”

Gerry Lewis writes, “The film has started production, and it does not feature any star names… movies without stars are a problem when it comes to premiers.” In a subsequent meeting in his office in Soho, he says, “I don’t give a fuck about your cause. I need stars!”

Mike Backes and Silicon Graphics have the full Virunga image and are happy. 

After seeing his film Rubber Universe on television, I contact Storm Thorgerson. We meet at Primates Restaurant and I ask if he’d be willing to make a space/gorillas film for Equinox. Storm, who has been Pink Floyd’s chief visual guru for 30 years, is keen to get involved.

Attend the last night of Pink Floyd’s 13 Earls Court concerts with ‘Access All Areas’ pass. Meet Mike Rutherford, Kate Bush and Nick Mason at backstage party and discuss NASA missions. 

Having been nominated for his part in inventing the communications satellite, Arthur C. Clarke does not win the Nobel Peace Prize.

At the request of Arthur C. Clarke, I attend the launch of Mike Oldfield’s Songs of Distant Earth album at the London Planetarium. Discuss the NASA project with Mike Oldfield afterwards. 

Douglas Adams and Arthur C. Clarke agree to work together on an Equinox doc, but extensive space shuttle coverage in the media puts Storm off this approach. Douglas Adams asks Dave Gilmour, Pink Floyd’s front man, to support the endangered mountain gorillas. He donates £30,000.

November 1994

Sigourney Weaver faxes Arthur C. Clarke, thanking him for his support for DFGF. “You probably don’t recall meeting me at my parents, Pat and Liz Weaver’s, when I was eleven. I took a ‘Playboy’ magazine out of your briefcase and read it. I’d never seen a ‘Playboy’ before so your visit is indelibly recorded in my memory!” Arthur’s reply is too personal to relay, says Goat Cay. 

Sam Mercer faxes, confirming they have the image and will send us $15,000 now and “an additional $15,000 – $20,000 upon evidence of the material/images appearing in the final cut of the picture.” The next day he faxes again, backing down on the deal. “After speaking to Mike Backes, we felt that a total donation of $15,000 was appropriate for the image.” 

DFGF’s ED, Dr Dieter Steklis signs a release for use of the Virunga image in the film CONGO

Rumour about a mountain gorilla stepping on a land mine in the Virungas causes stir. Difficult to confirm. 

BBC say they will incorporate our story into their nature special, Gorilla, due to be broadcast on New Year’s Day. David Attenborough with narrate and appeal to the public for donations. 

December 1994

Scientific American publishes article on Endeavour missions, includes image of the mountain gorilla habitat. Dr. McLaughlin’s article also published in Spaceflight, including our address.  

Meet Storm Thorgerson and Lana Topham, producer of Pink Floyd’s films, to discuss doc with Storm directing. Decide the film should be called, 650: A Gorilla Dilemma, and needs event to help launch it. Suggest advertising the end product video (with Arthur C. Clarke, Douglas Adams and music by Pink Floyd) in Wired magazine and on the Net to boost sales cheaply. 

Cannot confirm gorilla land mine story. 

January 1995

BBC Nature Special, Gorilla, on Steklis’ and Redmond’s trip to Rwanda in August, is broadcast on New Year’s Day on BBC 2. 3.2 million watch it; 3,500 viewers write in. £60,000 is donated.

CONGO cast and crew fly to Costa Rica for final weeks of filming. 

BBC’s Tomorrow’s World express interest in covering our space story. 

Ricci Rukavena, head of New Media at Kennedy/Marshall, confirms CONGO will consider a sponsorship proposal from DFGF  Mike Backes advises us to use Hollywood publicist, Beverly Magid, who is coincidently already a supporter. Finalize and send proposal to CONGO

February 1995

Sigourney Weaver agrees to endorse the Fund’s bid with Kennedy/Marshall and will personally phone Kathleen Kennedy, whom she holds “in very high regard”.

After weeks of deliberation, DFGF US drops NBC’s Today Show in favour of ABC’s Day One who fly to Rwanda, together with People magazine, to film Dr Dieter Steklis and Dr Netzin Gerald meeting Major General Paul Kagame and inspecting the damage to the Karisoke Research Center. A copy of Arthur C. Clarke’s book, 2001: A Space Odyssey is found in the ransacked research papers and rubble.

Jillian and I fly to Los Angeles for meetings with Kennedy/Marshall, JPL, and Guttman Associates.  Beverly Magid and Dick Guttman discuss how they can help DFGF. Lunch with Mike Backes and Beverly Magid on Rodeo Drive and focus on how best to pitch to CONGO. Dick Guttman who’s been eating at another table comes over and introduces us to Pattricia Hearst, asks if we’d be willing to give her a ride home. During a twenty minute drive up Wilshire Blvd, I pitch the gorillas to Patti Hearst who then agrees to approach the Hearst Foundation on behalf of DFGF. 

Meet Ricci Rukavena at Kennedy/Marshall to discuss sponsorship proposal. Ricci confirms Kennedy/Marshall is keen to support us and will need little convincing, but that it’s Paramount executives who will have the final say on any deals. 

Meet Dr Ellen Stofan and Dr Bill McLaughlin at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. They promise to continue publicizing the shuttle missions, say the Virunga image is the SIR-C science team’s favourite. Ellen tells us she will be in London for a year from June and would like to work closely with the London office to continue to promote our ‘space for gorillas’ projects, through lectures in the UK.

Mike Oldfield donates £25,000 to DFGF UK, “in recognition of the inspiration and contribution of Arthur C. Clarke to my last album, The Songs of Distant Earth.”

While visiting my parents in Baja, I catch a piece on the Today Show about Rwanda’s gorillas. People magazine publish a feature article and ABC Day One broadcast a special about Dieter and Netzin’s return to Rwanda. 

March 1995

Sigourney Weaver calls me to say she’s spoken to Kathleen Kennedy on behalf of DFGF, put forward a forceful case for the gorillas, and offered to pitch directly to the CEO’s of CONGO‘s primary sponsors: Pepsi Cola and Taco Bell. 

Sam Mercer, a bit ruffled about being “blindsided’ by Sigourney, calls to ask what the our program priorities are. Kennedy/Marshall has decided to make the issue of mountain gorilla conservation “a headline in the promotion of CONGO,” and Sam is going into a meeting with Paramount executives to endorse this approach. If he’s successful, CONGO‘s support will be directed towards a gorilla census ($150,000) and the Virunga Management Plan ($90,000). 

DFGF US director Greg Movesian and Dieter Steklis meet Sam Mercer and Ricci Rukavena at Kennedy/Marshall for final briefing before their meeting with Paramount. Greg calls to say they are “very excited about the census and management plan.” Sam Mercer and Ricci Rukavena meet executives at Paramount to discuss, and get final approval for, a sponsorship deal between CONGO and the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund. 

Gerry Lewis, at UIP – CONGO‘s distributers – says it is not up to Paramount, but UIP to decide whether DFGF gets a UK premiere or not. Begin putting together a UK Premiere Committee anyway. Sam Mercer faxes saying, “Paramount has responded favourably to your request for a UK Premiere!! Good news at last.”

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