Astronaut Ulf Merbold - Hubertus Huvermann

An encounter with astronaut Ulf Merbold

Hubertus Huvermann
4 minutes

Can you still remember what you wanted to be when you were young? I’m pretty sure that being an astronaut made it into your ‘top ten’. I would still love to be an astronaut today. To see Earth from space, experience zero gravity or set new speed records with the Space Shuttle. I met someone in Bitterwasser, Namibia, who has done all that. None other than astronaut Ulf Merbold.

He was the second German to go into space and the only German astronaut to complete three space flights. Imagine being an astronaut – I can’t stop thinking about it. Very few things on this planet get me as excited as the thought of lifting off into space. Madness! And so now I find myself sitting right next to Ulf in a slightly shabby old Toyota pick-up – in the middle of Africa! We’re driving his Ventus glider, YY, which he owns with Bruno Gantenbrink, to take-off. All the other pilots are already airborne, but we’re totally laid back and take our time. Why hurry? After all, this guy has been to space! What kind of goal could beat that? We chat for a while – it takes time to get from the parking area to the starting line in Bitterwasser. The salt pan is huge and, depending on the wind direction, you might have to drive some distance. Not too fast of course to avoid damage to the glider!

Astronaut Ulf Merbold - Hubertus Huvermann

What on earth do you ask astronaut Ulf Merbold?

I can’t help myself – I feel like a novice pilot – and I simply have to ask Ulf some questions. But I’ve got to sound as if I know what I’m talking about. I’ve got to sound like his equal. I ask him about the weather – stupidly nothing better comes to mind than asking him about the weather. We are actually driving under a sky that would be listed in the dictionary under “perfection”. And straight off we’re talking, like seasoned glider pilots do, about cloud cover, thermals, task distances and avionics. Somehow, I just don’t feel as if I’m sitting next to an astronaut. Ulf is such a nice guy and, literally, down-to-earth – in the most positive way.

Astronaut Ulf Merbold - Hubertus Huvermann
Encounter in Bitterwasser - Namibia

He’s relaxed behind the wheel as he drives our white Toyota across the solid sandy terrain of the Bitterwasser salt pan. We talk non-stop about this and that. And then I simply have to ask: “When you’ve been into space three times, what is there left for you to achieve?” Ulf smiles. It’s as if his space flights were completely normal for him, a logical consequence of all that had gone before. Simply a job that had to be done.

Ulf has had the opportunity to experience something other-worldly. It was only possible with the help of a great many people working together. With modern aerospace, humanity has created something indescribable that transcends borders.

Gratefulness and powerlessness

Ulf is very grateful that he was able to play a small part in this history and now is happy to give something back to society. Nowadays he is very involved in a number of social projects. “Wings of Help” is just one of many. He tells me about his visits to earthquake zones and his feelings of powerlessness. About medication that could not be transported to people in need because the bureaucracy simply did not work quickly enough. About refugee camps on the Turkish border in which 800 newborn babies and their mothers are living in tents during the winter months.

Astronaut Ulf Merbold has seen the entire planet, from space and on the ground. The most vivid impression of his space travels to stay in his mind, he says, is the fact that “our earth is a spacecraft in which we are all flying as one.” A small place, worth protecting, for which we all have to take responsibility. By the way – Africa from above is a very special experience. In this photo gallery you can take a peak. 

Astronaut Ulf Merbold - Hubertus Huvermann

Photos © Hubertus Huvermann

by Hubertus Huvermann

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