Meet the small German space mission that aims to improve life on earth

Holding its own against aerospace giants like pan-European Airbus Space or French-Italian Thales Alenia, Bremen-based minnow OHB has carved out a space as a national champion in satellite building.

Meet the small German space mission that aims to improve life on earth
Two satellites are manufactured in Bremen. Photo: DPA

Its latest coup was claiming a hefty slice of business from contracts signed in early July by the European Space Agency (ESA) as it builds up its Earth observation programme known as Copernicus.

Among the six new satellites, an OHB-built orbiter will keep an eye on carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions stemming from human activity over the coming decades.

The aim: offering policymakers the data they need to find ways of reducing greenhouse gas output.

“Some space missions are mostly relevant to science. At OHB, we like projects that help people in their everyday lives,” chief executive Marco Fuchs told AFP.

Thales Alenia may have secured the lion's share of ESA orders this time around, but OHB is “ideally positioned” to play a role in “permanent observation of the Earth in environmental, climate and security terms”, Fuchs said.

READ ALSO: 10 breathtaking views of Germany from space

Germany's aerospace sector claimed around 30 percent of the “Copernicus 2.0” business, or €800 million.

That shows it is “well equipped to be competitive internationally”, believes Thomas Jarzombek, a lawmaker who tracks aerospace issues for Chancellor Angela Merkel's CDU party.

The sector has also been abuzz in recent months as Germany signalled ambitions to significantly ramp up the industry.

Economy Minister Peter Altmaier raised hopes when he voiced support in October for a proposal from industry federation BDI to develop a space mission launch centre in Germany.

Family first

OHB's success with Copernicus was in part down to the laurels it earned working on Galileo, the ESA's other flagship programme offering satellite navigation to match the American GPS system.

The Bremen-based company with its 2,800 workers built around 20 of the satellites in the network.

Snatching that contract from under the nose of Airbus subsidiary Astrium in 2010 rocketed aerospace also-ran OHB into the ranks of top manufacturers.

When businesswoman Christa Fuchs bought the small company known as Otto Hydraulik Bremen in 1982, it had been repairing ships since its founding a quarter of a century before.

The satellites play a role in monitoring carbon emissions. Photo: obs/©OHB SE

But her husband, aerospace engineer Manfred Fuchs, joined the firm a few years later and piloted it off in a new direction — handing the controls over to his son Marco, a former corporate lawyer, in 2000.

The family holds 70 percent of the firm to this day, with the rest traded on the stock market and valued at a total €740 million.

The coronavirus pandemic has had an impact on OHB, prompting the company to give up on paying out a dividend to shareholders this year as well as performance-related bonuses or pay rises to staff.

But it is pressing on with new projects, including developing its own rocket at a site in the Bavarian city of Augsburg to deliver small satellites into orbit.

'Try something new'

Typical of Germany's industrial backbone of successful small and medium-sized firms, OHB has resisted plans of French Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire to bolt it together with France's Arianegroup and Italy's Avio.

“Merging Arianegroup and OHB would not improve the EU's space industry,” CEO Fuchs insists.

OHB itself has meanwhile set its sights on other related projects.

READ ALSO: Meet the Germans who want to move to Mars

Marco Fuchs argues that “the EU should try something new… in the telecommunications space”.

“Europe needs its own network of versatile satellites, like those being built by competitors like Project Starlink of Space X or Kuiper by Blue Origin,” he said.

Billionaire Elon Musk's Starlink programme and Amazon mogul Jeff Bezos' Kuiper aim to deliver connectivity to the remotest locations on land and sea.

Fuchs' plans may well fit the EU's ambitions.

European Commissioner Thierry Breton recently told France's Le Figaro daily that he would “very soon” propose plans for the EU to become more independent in broadband internet.

By Jean-Philippe Lacour

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‘An impressive man and a rather quiet hero’: Sigmund Jähn, Germany’s first man in space, dies at 82

In the German Democratic Republic (GDR) he was a hero of the people, and in all of Germany he was a role model: the cosmonaut Sigmund Jähn has died at the age of 82.

'An impressive man and a rather quiet hero': Sigmund Jähn, Germany’s first man in space, dies at 82
In 1978 Jähn spent seven days in space. Photo: DPA

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.

READ MORE: 10 breathtaking views of Germany from space 

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.

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.

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.