Obituary: Sigmund Jaehn, first German in space

Sigmund Jaehn, astronaut. Born: 13 February 1937 in Morgenröthe-Rautenkranz, Muldenhammer, Germany Died: 21 September 2019 in Strausberg, Germany, aged 82.

(Picture: Getty Images)
(Picture: Getty Images)

Sigmund Jaehn, who became the first German in space at the height of the Cold War during the 1970s and was promoted as a hero by communist authorities in East Germany, has died. He was 82.

The German Aerospace Centre said Jaehn died on Saturday. The centre did not give the cause of death. German news agency dpa said he died at his home in Strausberg, outside of Berlin.

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Astrophysicist Pascale Ehrenfreund, who chairs the German Aerospace Center’s executive board, said the centre was deeply saddened by Jaehn’s death and that German aerospace had lost a “globally respected cosmonaut, scientist and engineer”.

“The first German in space always saw himself as a bridge builder between East and West and for a peaceful use of space” Ehrenfreund said.

Jaehn flew to the Soviet space station Salyut 6 on 26 August 1978 and spent almost eight days in space. Upon his return he was awarded the title Hero of the Soviet Union. The East German government showcased his achievement as evidence of the communist state’s superiority over capitalist West Germany.

While Jaehn was a household name for a generation of East Germans, he remained largely unknown in West Germany. German Vice Chancellor Olaf Scholz described Jaehn last year on the 40th anniversary of his space flight as “an impressive man and a rather quiet hero”.

“It is high time for his courage and his work to be recognized not just in the east but in all of Germany,” Scholz said.

Jaehn was born in 1937 in Morgenroethe-Rautenkranz, a village near the Czech border. After he finished school, he trained as a printer before joining the East German air force in 1955. He became an officer and a fighter pilot with the National People’s Army in the late 1950s.

Between 1966 and 1970 he studied at the Gagarin Military Air Academy in Monino, near Moscow.

After returning to East Germany he worked in the air force administration, where he was in charge of pilot education and flight safety.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and Germany’s reunification a year later, Jaehn became an adviser to the German Aerospace Center and the European Space Agency. He helped prepare future astronauts for space missions until his retirement in 2002.

Recalling his seven days, 20 hours and 49 minutes in space, during which he orbited the Earth 124 times, Jaehn said last year that he vividly remembered the many sunrises he saw during his mission.

“It’s not only one; every 1½hours you can see the sun rise. It’s very fast. One can see exactly how the sun goes up and down and shows its many colours,” Jaehn told the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper.

Jaehn said that unlike many people, he had no problems getting used to zero gravity. “I didn’t even get sick. I thought it was very pleasant,” he said.

He said that if he had grown up in West Germany he probably would never have made it into space.

“I didn’t go to university right away. I was the best student, but my father wanted me to become a printer. When you’re 14, you listen to your parents,” he remembered.

“I caught up on everything later, got my university entrance degree, went to university,” he added. “But in the West, they still sometimes like to say: This Jaehn, he only was a simple worker.”

Jaehn was married and had two daughters.