Darmstadt has always had a special relationship with aircraft and spacecraft. In 1908, August Euler founded the “Euler-Flugmaschinenwerke” near Darmstadt, the first German factory for motor-driven aircraft. In the same year, he built Germany’s first airfield on the army exercise range in Griesheim. In 1910, Euler was the first person in Germany to pass the officially recognised, internationally accepted pilot test. In February of that year, he became the holder of the very first German pilot’s licence. On his initiative, in 1912, the first official postal flight took place between Frankfurt am Main and Darmstadt.
About sixty years later, in 1967, the European Space Operations Centre (ESOC) was formally inaugurated in Darmstadt to provide satellite control for the European Space Research Organisation, today known as the European Space Agency (ESA). ESOC began just a decade after the 1957 start of the space age, when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite. The news of Sputnik was hailed as the achievement of a dream, the first tentative step by mankind into the cosmos.
In both air and space flight, what began as the dream of pioneers is now a cornerstone of modern society. Air travel is no longer the prerogative of the rich and has revolutionised the way we live and work. Although spacecraft continue to explore our universe, they have also become a key part of our infrastructure, supporting telecommunication, weather forecasting and climate monitoring as well as navigation.
ESOC, as a research-oriented organisation, has had a major role in the development of satellite technology in Europe. As these technologies have matured, new organisations have been formed to provide operational services. One such organisation is EUMETSAT, which operates Europe’s meteorological satellites and guarantees that we receive our daily weather forecasts. EUMETSAT delivers weather and climate-related satellite data, images and products – 24 hours a day, 365 days a year – to the national meteorological services of its member and cooperating states in Europe, as well as to other users worldwide.
With the setting up of EUMETSAT in 1986, Darmstadt became one of the few cities worldwide with two completely separate satellite control centres – finally establishing Darmstadt as a “Space City”.
In the meantime, Darmstadt has become a breeding ground for companies that exploit satellite technologies, creating jobs in the area and developing a reputation for innovation which helps to attract the best people to fill those jobs. Satellite-based telecommunications is now a thriving commercial industry and Darmstadt is home to a number of companies in this area, ranging from the large market-leaders to smaller organisations serving specific niches.
In the areas of satellite navigation and earth observation, more and more companies are being created in and around Darmstadt to take advantage of the growing market for location-based services. Earth observation satellites provide us with ever-improving pictures of our planet and information on our environment to support a large range of applications. And while Europe prepares to launch its own constellation of navigation satellites, a number of established companies and start-ups are building services based upon the existing GPS and EGNOS systems.
Moving from space to aviation, Darmstadt is less than twenty minutes away from one of the world’s most important airports. Frankfurt Airport is the home base of the Star Alliance and is also served by a long list of other airlines from all over the globe. Over 120 airlines have around 4,650 direct flights a week to over 300 destinations in over 100 countries. 150,000 passengers pass through Frankfurt Airport every day. Over 160 ICE trains a day ensure immediate connections to and from Frankfurt Airport.
In addition to its importance as a passenger airport, Frankfurt is also Europe’s second largest cargo hub. Air traffic management faces some major challenges as the aviation market continues to grow. The DFS Deutsche Flugsicherung GmbH is responsible for air traffic control in Germany. DFS employs around 6,000 staff, the majority of whom are based in Langen, just north of Darmstadt. Air traffic management needs to take advantage of advances in technology to address issues such as safety and environmental impact
This is one example of the close link between air and space. Satellites are providing a major part of the solutions to some of the challenges faced by aviation. Satellite navigation will enable aircraft to fly more flexible routes, saving fuel, reducing costs and pollution and creating more acceptable noise profiles. More accurate weather forecasting will increase safety and improve planning of flights. Satellite communications will also help to improve safety, at the same time as providing more comfort to passengers on board. There are two main reasons why Darmstadt is pre-destined to continue its strong links with aerospace. Firstly, its universities and research institutes foster the kind of innovation which is necessary for these industries. The networks and relationships to local industry are strong and continually improving. Secondly, situated in the heart of Europe between the Rhine, Main and Neckar rivers, with beautiful forests to its south and west and a short train ride from Frankfurt or Heidelberg, Darmstadt offers the quality of life to attract and retain those people who can drive the industries forward.
Aircraft and satellites – they continue to fascinate and inspire people of all ages. But what the pioneers started in the last century is now an integral part of our everyday lives. Darmstadt has been involved from the start and will continue to play a leading role in their development.
The author has been Managing Director of VEGA Space GmbH since 1991. He has a bachelor’s degree in physics and a diploma in marketing. He has been working in the aerospace industry since 1976, when he moved to Darmstadt to work at the European Space Operations Centre (ESOC). John Lewis is a member of the IHK committee on regional marketing and point of contact for matters concerning aerospace.