Per aspera ad astra: Germany’s dream of Outer Space

On 21st of September this year a pioneer of space travel died – after a long and exciting life full of adventures, always on the bleeding edge of history. Sigmund Jähn was famous in East Germany and a decorated Hero of the German Democratic Republic as well as the Soviet Union, both countries that ceased to exist in the last century. In 1978 he spent more than a week on the Russian space station Salyut 6, a predecessor of the ISS that is now connecting global space exploration efforts rather than being a tool of competition in a tiring cold war.He remained a legend for being the first German in space, and his life story is an intriguing example for the history of space exploration in the 20th century, especially in Germany.

German space travel was mired in global politics from the beginning. Without an own space program, Germany’s astronauts and scientists always connected to international ventures. During cold war times this locked West German astronauts and East German cosmonauts into a race into space that ended with the reunification in 1990.

Nevertheless most of the 10 German space travellers so far were soldiers, usually fighter pilots, rather than scientists. This does not apply to the two currently active German astronauts. While Hans Schlegel has a distinct military career besides his scientific achievements, Alexander Gerst is a highly successful geophysicist with a focus on volcanology. He even denied the military draft to serve in the compulsory civilian service instead. From a German point of view, the race into space clearly has ended. Exploring the possibilities of space is a matter of learning and discovery. American talk of installing a “space force” are met with irritated disbelief in modern Germany.

Now this is something you don’t see very often: 10 German astronauts together in a picture! The occasion was today’s opening of the globally unique DLR research facility :envihab. From left to right: Gerhard Thiele (SRTM/STS-99), Reinhold Ewald (Mir’97), Klaus-Dietrich Flade (Mir’92), Ulrich Walter (D2), Hans Schlegel (D2, Columbus), Ernst Messerschmid (D1), Thomas Reiter (Euromir 95, Astrolab), Sigmund Jähn (Saljut 6), Ulf Merbold (STS-9, STS-42, Euromir 94) and – last but not least – our new german ESA astronaut Alexander Gerst!

Source: DLR German Aerospace Centre

The total lack of females among the whole group of German astronauts, despite many women serving in the official astronaut corps, has been met with a private initiative in recent years. Crowdfunded and with great public support, the first space travel of a female German astronaut is set for 2020. That a crowdfunded private initiative is even necessary is reason for controversy but doesn’t seem to stop the momentum of the idea. Read more here:

A long tradition

Looking back in history, Germans were fascinated with the idea of space for a very long time. Some of the most famous pioneers in astronomy were German, like Nikolaus Kopernikus, who argued for a heliocentric model of our solar system already in the 15th century, or the legendary Johannes Kepler who in the early 17th century discovered the laws of planetary movement. Early ideas for rocket propelled vehicles were written down in 1529 by military technician Conrad Haas, although the practical application of his ideas came centuries later. An actual space rocket was suggested by inventor Hermann Ganswindt in 1880, but his ideas were far ahead of his time.

Science Fiction, however, boomed in this time. Authors like Jules Vernes (admittedly French, not German) inspired the scientific community; an influence that is largely underestimated. German Science Fiction pioneer Kurd Laßwitz published his novel “Auf zwei Planeten” (on two planets) in 1897, which is widely seen as the initiation of the genre in Germany. “Zukunftsromane” (future novels) took a long time to make it into the mainstream of German literature, in a country that is obsessed with sophistication of the arts and is all too easy dismissing new ideas as childish or silly. The most successful Science fiction in Germany is thus the series “Perry Rhodan”, publishing a 64 page “novel” once per week since 1961. For readers looking for mature Science fiction from Germany, the author Andreas Eschbach might be a good choice. His books are well researched, his ideas original and intelligent.

But back to actual space travel! Inspired by Jules Vernes it was Hermann Oberth who in 1917 developed the first proper space rocket – in theory at first. His concept was put into practice in 1928 with the first manned rocket flight on board of the “Lippisch-Ente”. A proud range of 1.5km was all this exciting vehicle could muster, under danger of death for pilot Fritz Stamer. Shortly after this, the first rocket air field was introduced in Berlin and the development gained speed.

World War 2 and the Nazi regime became strong drivers of rocket science. Peenemünde, in the very North of Germany, became the centre of research and development and later the starting point for military rockets like the notorious V2 which wreaked havoc in English cities in the 1940s. The German rocket program was led by the famous scientist Wernher von Braun – and yes, this name is well known to everyone interested in space exploration. After the end of the war, he was brought to the US together with a huge team of his engineers, and became one of the leading men in the US space programs and NASA. The adoption and integration of German knowledge into the US was called “Operation Overcast”, and it gave home and protection to many high ranked Nazi scientists.

The modern world: European Space Agency and the DLR

Humanity’s road into space cannot be a national venture alone. Resources and knowledge have to cross borders to create progress, and all too often this process is stalled by petty conflicts on a planet that is becoming smaller and smaller for mankind.

Modern Germany has close ties with Russian and US space programs, and within the European Union it is the European Space Agency ESA that attempts to keep up with the big players in aerospace development. Compared to its American, Russian, Chinese and even Indian counterparts, ESA is a small organisation, and the German Aerospace Center DLR (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt) is rather tiny. Nevertheless both organisations are highly professional and will have their share of the future in space.

Tourists find a Museum dedicated to Space Travel in Sigmund Jähn’s place of birth, in the picturesque town of Morgenröthe-Rautenkranz, where you can visit a training block of the international MIR space station.

Let’s hope this journey continues and we won’t get stuck in narrow minded, petty conflicts on the surface of our tiny planet instead.

Sigmund Jähn, first German Kosmonaut (1978), Source: Deutsches Bundesarchiv (German Federal Archive), Bild 183-T0709-148

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