Wubbo Ockels, Holland’s first man in space and a member of the only shuttle mission to launch and land with a crew of eight, died earlier today (Sunday, 18 May), due to complications from kidney cancer. He was 68. Ockels served as a payload specialist on Mission 61A in October-November 1985, which carried the German-dedicated Spacelab-D1 and marked the last successful flight of Challenger.
Born in Almelo, a municipality in the eastern Netherlands, on 28 March 1946, Wubbo Johannes Ockels considered the university town of Groningen as his home, and it was there that he received the bulk of his education. Although another shuttle astronaut, Lodewijk van den Berg—who flew aboard Challenger on the 51B Spacelab-3 mission in April-May 1985—was Dutch-born, he was a naturalized U.S. citizen at the time of his spaceflight. This meant that Ockels became the first Dutch citizen to enter space.
He obtained a master’s degree in physics from the University of Groningen in 1973 and a doctorate in physics and mathematics in 1978 for research focusing on the decay process of gamma rays in nuclear systems at Groningen’s Nuclear Physics Accelerator Institute. In August 1978, Ockels was selected as one of three payload specialist candidates—alongside then-West German Ulf Merbold and Switzerland’s Claude Nicollier—to train for the Spacelab-1 mission. Two years later, in May 1980, under a joint agreement between NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA), Ockels was accepted for dedicated shuttle mission specialist training.
After completion of this training, Ockels served as Merbold’s backup on the STS-9 mission in November-December 1983, which carried Spacelab-1. The two men changed roles for Spacelab-D1, the first West German-financed mission, with Merbold serving in a backup capacity. In honor of the traditions of his Dutch homeland, Ockels took a large bag of gouda cheese as part of his personal allowance when he launched aboard Challenger on 30 October 1985. Ockels’ cheese was keenly remembered, years later, by Mission 61A Commander Hank Hartsfield. “The coolest part of the vehicle was the tunnel that went from the middeck to the lab,” he recalled. “He taped that bag of gouda up in the tunnel. It was so convenient that anybody that went there, on the way back and forth, reached it. About the second or third day, he was upset because two-thirds of the cheese was gone!”
As a member of the 61A crew, Ockels formed part of the largest group of spacefarers ever launched into orbit on the same spacecraft. It is a record which remains unbroken to this day. The eight-strong crew consisted of Hartsfield, pilot Steve Nagel, mission specialists Bonnie Dunbar, Jim Buchli, and Guy Bluford, German payload specialists Reinhard Furrer and Ernst Messerschmid, and Holland’s Ockels. Although Spacelab-D1 was primarily financed by West Germany, ESA had contributed 40 percent in return for flying one of its astronauts as a payload specialist … and the eight-strong crew was born. In the wake of the Challenger disaster, shuttle crews were restricted to a maximum of seven members, although STS-71—the first Mir docking mission in June-July 1995—carried eight individuals, including two Russian cosmonauts, back home from orbit.
Spacelab-D1 (for “Deutschland”) was almost entirely devoted to life and microgravity sciences. Preparations for the crew were more complex than most previous missions because of the great deal of travel between the United States, Holland, and West Germany. “Our primary training was conducted at Porz Wahnheide in Germany, a small, very picturesque town, south of Cologne,” Bluford recalled. This European astronaut office housed the ground training units for several Spacelab experiments. Joining Bluford and Dunbar on the science crew were a record-breaking three payload specialists, all of them physicists—West Germans Messerschmid and Furrer, together with Ockels—and the quintet were responsible for 76 experiments in several major facilities aboard the Spacelab module. With names such as Werkstofflabor, Prozesskamer, Biowissenschaften, and Biorack, the West German-supplied research complement sounded like a fearsome medieval torture chamber, yet encompassed a range of studies of the behavior and processing of materials and fluids and the functioning of biological organisms in the strange microgravity environment.
Werkstofflabor, firstly, was a multi-purpose unit which housed three furnaces, a fluid physics module, and a crystal growth device to investigate areas of materials processing, semiconductor growth for electronics applications, fluid boundary surfaces, and heat-transfer phenomena.The Prozesskamer (or “process chamber”) was designed to measure flows, mass transport, heat, and temperature distribution during the melting and solidification processes of various materials. Another important facility was the Materials Science Experiment Double Rack for Experiment Modules and Apparatus (MEDEA), which comprised three separate furnaces: one that conducted long-duration crystallization studies, one that used a “directional solidification” technique to process metallic crystals at extremely high temperatures, and one with a high-precision thermostat that examined the behavior of metals under carefully controlled thermal conditions.
By the second day of the mission, Spacelab-D1’s medical and biological investigations were progressing better than the materials science ones. In particular, a problem with MEDEA’s pressure sensor had to be corrected by an in-flight maintenance procedure, and a lamp on the furnace was also replaced. Unfortunately, this meant that many hours’ worth of “run-time” were lost. Discussions to extend 61A from seven to eight days were turned down because Spacelab’s power usage levels could not be reduced enough to provide the required extra day aloft. Elsewhere, the Biowissenschaften and Biorack facilities focused upon life and biological science applications. Results from the latter, built by ESA, offered striking evidence of the influence of gravity on bacteria, unicellular organisms, and white blood cells. A total of 14 cellular and developmental biology investigations were assigned to Spacelab-D1, and it was the first occasion on which specimens were “fixed” and thus preserved in orbit for post-mission analysis. Two of these experiments confirmed observations made on several previous shuttle flights: bacteria tend to reproduce more rapidly in space than on Earth, suggesting that astronauts could be exposed to a higher risk of infection. Of particular note was an investigation featuring the common pathogenic organism E. coli, which has demonstrated an increased resistance to antibiotics in orbit. On the other hand, some of Spacelab-D1’s bacteriological research indicated that some cells actually exchanged genetic material through physical “bridges,” perhaps leading to novel techniques for introducing human genes into bacteria to synthesize useful products.
Vestibular experiments involving both humans and tadpoles were also conducted and, in the latter case, revealed pronounced alteration in swimming behavior upon return to Earth. The tadpoles swam in small circles around fixed centers until their behavior returned to normal a few days after being returned to Earth. Later examinations of the morphology of their vestibular gravity receptors revealed no structural deformities, indicating that they developed normally in space. This was consistent with earlier studies of amphibians and rodents. Running on rails along the centre aisle of the Spacelab-D1 module was ESA’s Vestibular Sled, designed to explore the functional organization of the astronauts’ vestibular and orientation systems and adaptation processes. The accelerations provided by the sled, which could accelerate its subjects at up to 0.2 g along the length of the module, was combined with thermal stimulation of their inner ears and optokinetic stimulation of their eyes.
Not only was Mission 61A’s large crew unusual, but so too was its distinction of being the first shuttle flight to be run from outside the United States. Although Mission Control at Houston was in overall command, the German Space Operations Centre (GSOC) at Oberpfaffenhofen, on the outskirts of Munich, managed daily research activities. This proved to work exceptionally well, although Oberpfaffenhofen’s limited data-transmission capabilities meant that several functions had to be monitored from the Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, Texas. Moreover, due to the presence of only one Tracking and Data Relay Satellite (TDRS), Spacelab-D1 received only limited communications coverage for approximately 30 percent of each orbit, and it was left to the Intelsat V satellite to relay data to an Earth station at Raisting in Bavaria and from there to the Oberpfaffenhofen control center by microwave link.
In order to conduct around-the-clock research, the 61A crew was divided into two 12-hour shifts, dubbed “red” and “blue.” Although not strictly attached to either shift, Hank Hartsfield and Wubbo Ockels tended to align their work schedules with that of the “blue team,” led by Steve Nagel. “Wubbo decided to freelance,” remembered Hartsfield. “He didn’t have a fixed shift. His shift would overlap the other two shifts. It was kind of a weird arrangement. He chose to sleep in the airlock. He had a sleeping bag—a design of his own—and the only trouble was that people going back and forth would bump him as they went through there.”
Despite the hectic, around-the-clock pace of 24-hour Spacelab-D1 operations, some time was granted to each spacefarer simply to gaze down on the Home Planet—particularly the trio of payload specialists, for whom the opportunity to fly in space would come only once. Seven days after launch, Challenger landed on Runway 17 at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., on 6 November 1985. For Ockels, it concluded his astronaut career, with a cumulative time in space of seven days, zero hours, and 44 minutes. In the aftermath of the Challenger disaster, Ockels hoped to serve as a payload specialist aboard the Spacelab-D2 mission, but was ultimately not considered for the flight in view of NASA’s new rules limiting crews to seven members. For a while, he was a possible contender as a payload specialist on the second International Microgravity Laboratory (IML-2) mission and a candidate for the EuroMir missions to Mir in 1994-1995, but was ultimately removed from the running by a minor medical issue.
Retiring from active astronaut training in 1994, Ockels accepted a part-time professorship of aerospace engineering, with an emphasis upon sustainable energy, at the Delft University of Technology in Delft, the Netherlands. This role became a full-time one in 2003. As part of his research, Ockels led the Dutch Superbus project to develop high-speed coaches, capable of traveling at up to 160 mph (250 km/h). In August 2005, he suffered a severe heart attack, but was later able to resume his work at the Delft University of Technology.
In May 2013, it was reported that Ockels had an aggressive form of kidney cancer, with a life expectancy of up to two years. Sadly, he died from complications of the disease on 18 May 2014. Ockels was married with two children and two grandchildren, to whom the AmericaSpace team extends its sincere condolences.