The ESA astronaut Ulf Merbold during training for the IML-1 mission (1992). In the background is the cryostat, a DLR development in which protein crystals are grown
He was the first non-American to do a space flight by NASA and the first astronaut in the Federal Republic of Germany. Today Ulf Merbold, who traveled into space in 1983, 1992 and 1994, is celebrating his eightieth birthday.
E.It began in April 1977 with a small job advertisement in the FAZ. The German Research and Experimental Institute for Aerospace, later the DLR, was advertised. On behalf of the European Space Agency, they were looking for “German scientists for work in weightlessness”. Among the approximately 2,000 applicants was the then 36-year-old physicist Ulf Merbold, who worked successfully at the Max Planck Institute for Materials Research in Stuttgart, but wanted to change his career. Merbold, who had a professional pilot’s license and could look back on more than 3000 flight hours, was exactly the man ESA was looking for.
He got the job with three other applicants, completed training as an astronaut and sat on November 28, 1983 on board the space shuttle Columbia, together with five American space travelers, among them the former Gemini and Apollo veteran John Young as the commander. In the cargo bay was the new reusable space laboratory Spacelab, which NASA and ESA had jointly developed and was intended for scientific experiments in weightlessness. Merbold spent eleven days in orbit and supervised around 70 experiments.
Ulf Merbold was the first non-American to take part in a NASA space flight. And he was the first astronaut in the Federal Republic of Germany. It was long forgotten in the West that a German had already flown into space before Merbold: Sigmund Jähn from the GDR had spent a week on the Soviet space station Salyut 6 in 1978. Merbold and Jähn also shared their homeland; both were born in Vogtland. When the young Merbold was refused permission to study physics in the GDR, he packed his things in front of the building of the wall and moved to the Federal Republic – with a heavy heart, as he later admitted. He flew into space two more times.
On January 22, 1992, he was on board the American space shuttle Discovery – this time on the eight-day “International Microgravity Laboratory” mission. And on October 3, 1994 he flew with the Euromir 94 mission as the first European astronaut to the Russian Mir space station and carried out 28 experiments over a period of 32 days. When Merbold was preparing for his Soyuz flight in the star city near Moscow, his friend Sigmund Jähn was looking after him.
Merbold passed on his experience as head of the astronaut department of the European Astronaut Center in Cologne. In the directorate for manned spaceflight at ESA’s ESTEC space center in Noordwijk, Holland, he prepared the European participation in the international space station from 1999 to 2004. On Sunday, Ulf Merbold, who still likes to climb his own glider pilot, will be 80 years old.