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Though he’d never be so self-important as to complain about it too much, they say that Sigmund Jähn’s back still hurts. It has done since September 3, 1978.

No wonder.

As his Soyuz capsule plummeted towards Kazakhstan a gust of wind hit it, disturbing the otherwise orderly planned deployment of the last, and the largest, of its four parachutes. The capsule changed direction suddenly, just metres from land, shifting its momentum, pulling against its strings like an itinerant dog, a bitch in its sights.

The bone dry steppe hurts when you crash into it at over seven metres a second.

Clouds of sand and dust were thrown violently into the sky. Some of them were swept further up and scattered from the backdraft created by the huge helicopter following the whole scene, before halting, drifting, and floating through the arid air placidly, gently raining down upon Jähn’s capsule as it lay sickly on its side. It was hot to the touch, banged up from the impact.

American pilots would joke about their astronaut countrymen being crammed into these things during the early days of space flight. “Spam in a can,” they called them.

Jähn’s capsule was as small as a tent. But it also had got him home.

He signed it with a stubby, thick white chalk a few minutes later, but only after he’d been shown the Neues Deutschland newspaper with his picture on the front cover. His moment of celebrity, however, seemed to leave him as unmoved as his crash landing had.

He smiled, chatted amiably and swept his hand through his longish, but thinning hair. On his right arm was an Interkosmos logo. On his left a DDR flag.

His handwriting was pretty, rounded, perfectly legible though florid. His hand was notably steady. He wrote his name underneath a simple message, presumably not necessarily just to everyone watching, but to his steed as well, the Soyuz capsule that had got him home safe.

“Herzlichen dank,” it said.

If he mentioned that his back hurt it remains unrecorded, but we can presume he didn’t. He was the first German in space.

Image courtesy of By Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-T0905-101 / CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0 de,

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