Updated: Mar 16, 2021
The first German in space, Sigmund Jähn, died aged 82 in September 2019. Though few people outside of Germany would be able to name him, Jähn became a symbolic folk hero in his native East Germany and a widely respected member of the international scientific community.
Jähn in 1978. Photo: Bundesarchiv via Wikimedia Commons, Bild 183-T0709-148 / Peter Koard / CC-BY-SA
Scientific and technological advances in the 20th century created a new battleground for the Cold War: space. During the 1960s the ‘Space Race’, between the United States and the Soviet Union fought to be the first to put satellites, animals, and eventually humans into space. Other nations in opposite Cold War camps soon followed suit, hoping to earn prestige and demonstrate their technological superiority.
Born in 1937 in Saxony, Jähn joined the East German air force aged just 18 and quickly rose through the ranks, becoming a fighter pilot. In 1966 he was sent to the Soviet Union’s prestigious Yuri Gagarin Air Force Academy to study military science and returned to the USSR in November 1976, having been selected to participate in the Soviet Interkosmos programme, which offered cosmonaut flights to its socialist allies.
On 26th August 1978, Jähn and his backup, Eberhard Köllner, flew a mission in a Soyuz 31 spacecraft to the Salyut 6 space station to run experiments and photograph the earth “in all its ineffable beauty and fragility”, spending a total of 7 days, 20 hours and 49 minutes in space. Speaking to Superillu magazine in 1998, Jähn described his awe at seeing the earth from space: “What I saw then was total happiness: Our Earth, in shining in bright blue. Just like a dream.”
Jähn’s achievements were exploited by eastern-bloc governments for political propaganda purposes. For the Soviet Union, his mission was a demonstration of socialist solidarity at a time when the USA had not opened its space programme to its allies. The fact that the first German in space had been a citizen of East Germany was naturally widely celebrated in the GDR, earning the GDR considerable international prestige. Celebrated as “our cosmonaut”, Jähn was elevated to the position of Volksheld (a hero of the people) in his homeland, although he rebuffed the title, stating “I am not a folk hero. I was simply lucky”.
Alongside developing the GDR’s domestic space programme by heading the newly founded Center for Cosmic Education of the Airforce of the National People's Army in Straußberg near Berlin, Jähn was sent as an ambassador to the West to help rally support for East Germany. Although his visits abroad were ostensibly for political purposes, Jähn himself was committed to peaceful space exploration and international cooperation, later helping to train European astronauts at both the German Aerospace Centre and European Space Agency.
Despite his fame at home, those who met Jähn reported that he was a very modest, quiet man who campaigned for “a peaceful use of space” in a time of global political tension. According to Pascale Ehrenfreund, CEO of the German Aerospace Center (DLR), Jähn “always saw himself as a bridge builder between East and West.”
Following his death in 2019, tributes poured in from the global scientific and astronaut community in praise of the first German in space, praising his “tireless support of European astronauts” and describing him as a role model and inspiration to younger generations.