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Germany

Thirty Years Later, East German Cosmonaut Still a Hero at Home

In Cold War Germany, most boys grew up wanting to be Sigmund Jaehn. The first German in outer space came from a small town in Saxony. Today, it's one of the few places that still remember the Communist cosmonaut.

Sigmund Jaehn

Sigmund Jaehn, hero to a generation of East Germans

On Aug. 26, 1978, communist East Germany launched the Soyuz 31 to the Soviet space station Salyut 6. On board was 41-year-old Sigmund Jaehn, who went down in history as "the first German cosmonaut."

Jaehn's career began in 1955 when he joined the GDR air force and became a pilot and military scientist. Between 1966 and 1970 he studied at the Gagarin Military Air Academy in Monino, in the Soviet Union, and afterwards worked in the GDR air force administration, responsible for pilot education and flight safety.

Forgotten hero

Sigmund Jaehn surrounded by reporters after landing back on earth

The pride of East Germany

The 1978 flight marked a political milestone, with Communist leaders pointing to its success as evidence of the Eastern Bloc's technological superiority. In September the same year, they showed their appreciation by awarding Sigmund Jaehn the title Hero of the Soviet Union.

But once the Cold War was over, Jaehn's achievements paled somewhat. These days, the name rings only a faint bell to most Germans. Despite the huge propaganda surrounding his seven-day space mission, Jaehn soon became just a footnote in history.

Local pride

It's a different story in his hometown of Morgenroethe-Rautenkranz, close to the Czech border. Few locals will ever forget the town's famous son. It is even home to a permanent exhibition of German Astronautics, with one room dedicated to Jaehn's achievements.

"It means a lot to all of us," said Karin Schaedlich from the exhibition. "I was 17 years old when Sigmund Jaehn went into space. And when he came back I was out on the street to see him and welcome him back together with his commander Valery Bykovsky. It was a great event here in Rautenkranz. Even after 30 years it's still very important for his home village."

Schaedlich's coworker Romy Mothes said she is keen to help young people in the region keep the Jaehn legacy alive.

"I think our younger generation knows who Sigmund Jaehn is," she said. "They learn about him in school. And we have a lot of children in our exhibition and all of them know him."

Putting politics in perspective

Jaehn today, with his family

Jaehn today is a frequent visitor to Morgenroethe-Rautenkranz

The man himself drops by now and then. At the time, he probably enjoyed the political fuss less than anyone. Although he toed the party line, his job gave him a unique perspective that helped him keep his eye on the broader picture.

"In the spacecraft we travel at 8 kilometers per second, and it takes less than a minute to pass our small country," the Communist hero once said.

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