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40th anniversary of Germany's first space flight

Earth seen from space

Sigmund Jähn and the MKF 6 – world-class excellence in space

Forty years ago, on 26 August 1978, Sigmund Jähn was the first German to fly into space. On board of the spacecraft was a top product from Jena – the MKF 6 multispectral imager, which was developed by a team at Carl Zeiss Jena in only nine months.

The first German in space

Porträt Sigmund Jähn

Sigmund Jähn

"On Saturday, 26 August 1978, at 15.51, the Soyuz 31 spacecraft was launched in the Soviet Union," the ADN news agency of the GDR (German Democratic Republic) reported. On board were the commander Valery Bykovsky and also Sigmund Jähn, the "first German in space – a citizen of the GDR", as "Neues Deutschland", the official organ of the SED party, stated in a headline.

The trained fighter pilot of the NVA (Nationale Volksarmee – the East German armed forces) spent seven days, 20 hours and 49 minutes in space, and during this time the crew circled the earth 125 times. Jähn’s tasks at Salyut 6 space station included meteorological observations, testing technical processes in zero gravity and health checks. Also on board was a new multi-spectral camera developed by Carl Zeiss Jena, the GDR’s contribution to the Interkosmos space programme. Through this type of cooperation, the "fraternal socialist countries" were able to participate in Soviet space flights and, in turn, contributed their own technological developments.

The MKF 6 – a top product from Jena

Multispektralkamera

The MKF 6

As the GDR's contribution, the Soviet Union wanted a product from VEB Carl Zeiss Jena because it had produced aerial cameras for decades. The world's first projection planetarium (patent number 391036) of 1923 also came from Jena.

From May/June 1975 to January 1976, 600 experts at Carl Zeiss Jena developed, under enormous time pressure, the MKF 6 camera for taking professional images of the Earth's surface from space. The camera consists of the base body, six film cassettes and a control panel. Only the light of a particular wavelength range can pass through the colour filters fixed in front of the lenses of the MKF 6. The spaceship’s high speed (about 17,400 miles per hour) leads to image blurring during the exposure time. To reduce this effect, the camera frame moves in the flight direction during exposure.

At that time, the MKF 6 was a world-class product. However, it could not be exploited commercially. The Soviets forbade Zeiss to export any equipment that would have allowed drawing conclusions about Soviet space technology. Although, there were indeed quite a few customer inquiries; the first, for example, came from the People’s Republic of China.
A patent was not applied for at that time. “We worked two shifts for six months to complete the project. That means two twelve-hour shifts a day. And we only just made it by the skin of our teeth. There was simply no time left to do all the cumbersome paperwork for a patent,” recalls Dr Achim Zickler, then head of the development department at Carl Zeiss.

Jena sticks with space travel even after the fall of the Berlin Wall

Products for manned space travel are still manufactured in Jena even after 1989. For example, the remote sensing instrument MOMS-2P (Modular Optoelectronic Multispectral Scanner) for the MIR space station in 1996, the micro re-entry capsule MIRKA in 1997 or the new multispectral imager of 2008 ( pdf-Datei DE 10 2007 011112 B4) used in the Rapid Eye Earth observation system.

A sought-after space expert

Sigmund Jähn became something of a "perfect socialist folk hero" after his space flight: Barely back, he was lavished with medals and honorary citizenships and acclaimed on round trips and at receptions. After all, Jähn's space flight meant that the GDR had won the race to the stars. It was not until five years later that Ulf Merbold, the first West German, followed him into space.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the Bundeswehr (German armed forces) did not want to employ NVA officers such as Jähn. Support came from Ulf Merbold of all people, the second German in space: As a former West German astronaut, he arranged the contact; Jähn became a consultant for the European Space Agency ESA and the German Aerospace Center (DLR). From 1992, Sigmund Jähn trained German and European astronauts at the Soviet training centre "Star City" near Moscow. He is still a sought-after space expert today.

Picture 1: DLR, Picture 2: DLR, Picture 3: Zeiss-Archiv

Last updated: 25/03/19 

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