Tributes from the political and scientific communities are pouring in for the first German in space.
On August 26th, 1978, Sigmund Jähn launched the spacecraft Soyuz 31 from the Baikonur Space Centre in modern-day Kazakhstan to the space station Salyut 6.
Together with the Soviet cosmonaut Waleri Bykovsky (1934-2019), he was in space for seven days, 20 hours and 49 minutes. It was not until 1983 that the second German, Ulf Merbold from the former West Germany, also flew into space.
Sigmund Werner Paul Jähn, born February 13th, 1937, was a lieutenant colonel in the East German Army NVA. A trained book printer, he came from the town of Morgenröthe-Rautenkranz in Saxony. After training as a fighter pilot in the Air Force of the NVA, he prepared for his flight into space in 1976, receiving training from the Soviet Union.
After the reunification of Germany in 1990, Jähn was initially unemployed. He went on to work for the German Aerospace Center and the European Space Agency (ESA), training European astronauts in Russia’s Star City.
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His death was announced on Sunday evening by the German Aerospace Centre. In former East Germany, the cosmonaut was recognized as a “Volksheld” (a hero of the people) and enjoyed great popularity. Despite his fame, he always remained modest, making him especially admired.
Politicians and scientists have reacted with sadness and offered their condolences. “An impressive man and a rather quiet hero,” tweeted Vice Chancellor Olaf Scholz (SPD) on Sunday.
Vor über 40 Jahren ist der erste Deutsche ins #All gestartet: @SigmundJahn. Ein beeindruckender Mann und ein eher leiser #Held. Heute ist Sigmund Jähn verstorben. Meine Gedanken sind bei seiner Familie und seinen Angehörigen.
— Olaf Scholz (@OlafScholz) September 22, 2019
Dietmar Bartsch, co-leader of political party Die Linke (The Left), expressed his condolences to Jähn's widow and relatives, “a real hero and yet such a humble person”.
Left-wing politician Gregor Gysi described Jähn as “very reserved and modest”. CDU General Secretary Paul Ziemiak called Jähn a true pioneer.
He inspired millions of young people to go beyond themselves and to be curious. “All of Germany mourns for its first man in space today,” tweeted Ziemiak.
Sigmund #Jähn war ein echter Pionier und inspirierte Millionen junger Menschen, über sich hinauszuwachsen und neugierig zu sein. Ganz Deutschland trauert heute um seinen ersten Mann im All. R.I.P.
— Paul Ziemiak (@PaulZiemiak) September 22, 2019
According to Tobias Hans, Chief Minister of Saarland, “there are and has been few role models like him”. And Saxony's head of government Michael Kretschmer (CDU) praised him, “I got to know him as a clever and modest Saxon. We will keep his life's work alive”.
Jahn's colleagues in space travel have also expressed their grief. “The news of the death of Sigmund Jähn has touched me deeply,” said Jan Wörner, Director General of the European Space Agency (ESA).
“Whenever we met, it was very personal, a friendship had been created that was not just about space travel and his tireless support of European astronauts”.
“The first German in space always understood that he bridged a gap between East and West so that space could be explored peacefully. We will safeguard and maintain his message to earth from space in silent memory.” said Pascale Ehrenfreund, CEO of the German Aerospace Center (DLR).
The German Space Exhibition commemorates Jähn’s space flight in his hometown. Jähn, who was married and had two daughters, lived in Strausberg near Berlin. Though he always remained in touch with his hometown in the Vogtland and had a holiday home there.