European human spaceflight is 30 today

I have never been one for remembering anniversaries, and had quite forgotten that today marks the 30th birthday of European human spaceflight.

As Ario of the Labyrinth reminds us, it was on this very day in 1978 that GDR military pilot Sigmund Jähn was sent aloft on the Soyuz 31 rocket. He then spent a week carrying out scientific research in the Soviet space station Salyut 6.

Jähn, a native of Morgenröthe-Rautenkranz in the district of Vogtland, first trained as a printer before joining the air force. Following German reunification in 1990, Jähn worked as a consultant with the German Aerospace Centre (DLR) and European Space Agency (ESA). Now “Dr Jähn”, with a PhD in Earth remote sensing, the former astronaut has a main-belt asteroid named after him – 17737 Sigmundjähn – discovered in 1998 by a Saxon astronomer from a small observatory in Drebach.

Ario describes Jähn as the first German in space. Actually, Jähn was not only the first German astronaut; he was the first western European. Jähn was followed five years later in November 1983 by Ulf Merbold – the first free European in orbit, and the European Space Agency’s first astronaut. I say “free”, but it’s worth noting that Merbold hails originally from Greiz in Thuringia, which is just down the road from where Jähn was born. The former GDR remains to this day a centre of German space research and high-tech industry.