Sigmund Jähn, Germany’s communist cosmonaut

Sigmund Jähn (1937-2019), Germany’s first man in space, wearing his space suit with the East German flag

Sigmund Jähn, the first German in space, died at his home in Strausberg outside of Berlin on September 21st, 2019. He was referred to as a “cosmonaut and not an “astronaut” due to the different terminology used in the Soviet Union and in Western nations.

Jähn was born on February 13th, 1937 to a working-class family in the village of Morgenröthe-Rauthenkranz in the Vogtland region of Saxony, which after World War II became part of the Soviet occupation zone and then the German Democratic Republic (GDR).

From 1943 to 1951 Jähn attended primary school there. He went on to do an apprenticeship as a printer at the Falkenstein Printing House in nearby Klingenthal.

Already a diehard Communist, for a year he managed in situ the pioneer program for schoolchildren, the youth organization established by the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED) in 1948.

In 1955, he entered the Franz Mehring Higher Air Force Officer School in Kamenz as a cadet. It had been established by the Ministry of the Interior in 1952 and was integrated into the newly-founded National People’s Army of the GDR in 1956.

At the military academy he learned fluent Russian and following graduation in 1958, Jähn stayed with the Air Force. From 1961 to 1963 he was deputy commander for political work, a clear indication of having the right class consciousness.

After teaching air tactics in 1965-66, he afterwards studied at the Gagarin Air Force Academy in Monino, east of Moscow. From 1970 to 1976, he worked in the administration, responsible for pilot education and flight safety. During this time Jähn translated into German a number of Soviet military and political publications.

He was selected for the Intercosmos Space Program together with fellow German Eberhard Köllner, who served as his backup. Both underwent full preparation courses at a facility known as Star City near the capital.

On August 26th, 1978, Jähn departed on board space ship Soyuz-31 with Russian Valery Bykovsky (1934-2019). Together with Byelorussian Vladimir Vasilyevich Kovalenok (born 1942) and Alexsander Sergeyevich Ivanchenkov (born 1940) they conducted experiments in remote sensing of the earth, medicine, biology, materials science and geophysics, on the space station Salyut-6.

After almost eight days and 124 orbits, they safely returned to Earth on September 3rd onboard Soyuz-29 to a hero’s welcome in both the Soviet Union and the GDR. Jähn was showered with the highest honors.

After the historic flight, he became more interested in science. He turned his recent discoveries about growing crystals and breeding cells of microorganisms in combination with polymers into the subject of his dissertation, which he finished at the Central Institute for Geophysics in Potsdam in 1983.

In 1985, he helped to create the Association of Space Explorers, a nonprofit organization with a current membership of over 400 people from 37 different countries who have completed at least one Earth orbit.

Jähn also continued his military career. From 1980 to 1983 he served as assistant to the Chief of the Air Force Directorate. Due to his personal convictions, he quit service before Germany’s reunification in 1990.

Instead, he joined the German Aerospace Center (DLR) in Cologne as an adviser and since 1993 was the representative of unified Germany at the European Space Agency (ESA) in Paris, helping to prepare future space missions until his retirement in 2002.

While Jähn remained largely unknown in West Germany, he was indeed a household name for a generation of East Germans. But sometimes for the wrong reasons.

I remember a rhyme that made fun out of the fact that although all kinds of supplies were scarce in the GDR, including good toilet paper, at least the country had an astronaut.

Jähn correctly stated that if he had grown up in West Germany, he most likely would never have made it into space. His amazing success is also a result of the proletarian cult, a key point of Communist ideology.

Due to persistent hard work, step by step he had managed to get a solid education. Jähn complained that some in the West still considered him a simple worker.

At the height of the Cold War, the East German Communists showcased his achievement as (obviously false) evidence of their State’s superiority over capitalist West Germany. Twelve years after his impressive journey, the GDR faded into history.

Though despite his apparent adaptability after the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, politically Jähn remained anchored in the past. During an interview, he insisted that he hadn’t been the first German, but the first citizen of the GDR in space…

Nevertheless, after his death DLR Chair Pascale Ehrenfreund praised him as somebody who “always saw himself as a bridge builder between East and West”. While such polite words can be easily dismissed as flattery, Jähn’s achievements are indisputable and deserve respect.


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