The his­to­ry of DLR site Oberp­faf­fen­hofen – 1937 to 2004

Previous history and rebuilding up to 1968

Flugfunk Forschungsinstitut Oberpfaffenhofen (FFO), an independent research facility, was set up in Oberpfaffenhofen in 1937, at around the same time as the Dornier aircraft hangar was being built. The job of the FFO changed with the outbreak of World War II (1939–1945). Its research work was put on hold. Instead, it turned to developing processes and devices that would be key to the war effort, for production in small pilot series. When the war ended, the first phase of research at Oberpfaffenhofen also came to an end.

The occupying powers took over the FFO, which had remained unscathed. Its library, equipment and machinery were transferred to the USA or to the offices of the occupying forces. The buildings were used as barracks for military flight operations. The earlier association FFO e.V. was brought back to life in 1954 with the help of the ministries for transport and economic affairs for the states of Bavaria and North Rhine-Westphalia, in conjunction with the Deutsche Versuchsanstalt für Luftfahrt (DVL), which was commissioned to resume aeronautical radio research in the Munich area, mainly aimed at air traffic control. On 28 October 1956, the facilities of the DVL were relocated to Oberpfaffenhofen.

From 1957 onward, the Bundeswehr testing and type inspection centre for aircraft equipment used half of the repaired premises in Oberpfaffenhofen. In 1958, the DVL Microwaves Institute and Institute of Control Engineering moved to Oberpfaffenhofen. There were moves to relocate other DVL institutes to Oberpfaffenhofen (including the Institute for Flight Mechanics from Essen-Mühlheim, and facilities for flight meteorology and gliding from Munich-Riem Airport), but there was a lack of space. New construction and conversion work got underway, under a strict budget. Large new office buildings (today the Institute of Atmospheric Physics and the Institute of Communications Technology) and the first stage of the German Space Operations Centre were built in the mid-1960s.

The merging of different DVL institutes in a single location opened up research capacity for new tasks, especially the participation of West Germany in national and international space projects. The Galileo Competence Center, the ground station at Weilheim and the Mobile Rocket Base (MoRaBa) were all established during this period. In 1969, the DVL had 800 employees on site, plus another 100 external contractors. By way of comparison, when it 'moved back in' in late 1955, it had just 30 members of staff.

Consolidation as part of the DFVLR (1968–1977)

In 1968, an era of abundant construction of research and operating facilities was coming to an end. Following the merger of the DFL, DVL, AVA and GfW to form a single entity, many research areas had twice or three times the number of staff they required, making it necessary to consolidate their positions. Initially, however, the focus turned to AZUR, Symphonie and the solar probe Helios, all major satellite projects that required the researchers to pool their efforts. Even before the completion of the initial major space projects, however, it was clear that changes and restructuring were afoot at the site. The former DVL Institute for Flight Mechanics was dissolved and merged with the Institute of Control Engineering to form a new Institute for Flight Systems Dynamics. Parts of the institutes of Satellite Electronics and Aeronautical Radio and Microwaves came together to form the new Institute of Communications Engineering.

First refocusing: realignment with space use (1977–1985)

The German decision to become heavily involved in the American-European cooperation on Shuttle and Spacelab meant that the facilities in Oberpfaffenhofen were no longer primarily geared towards key national tasks. Major procurement programmes undertaken in the military sector, such as Tornado and AWACS, significantly reduced funding for research and reconnaissance. The location required a restructure in the light of all this.

Data processing, which was geared more towards user requirements, particularly in the field of Earth observation, now split off from spaceflight operations, with a new main department created for that purpose. The research institutes adjusted to the fact that large-scale projects could arise in their fields of expertise, allowing them to play an important part in the preparatory work and eventual implementation. The research institutes were restructured, with a new Institute for Optoelectronics formed from parts of the Institute for Communications Engineering and the Institute for Flight Systems Dynamics, along with the Extraterrestrial Sensor Systems working group. Operational data processing research came together in the newly created German Remote Sensing Data Centre (DFD). A main department (Spaceflight Missions) was created to handle operational tasks for sounding rockets and space missions.

The new opportunities associated with the European Meteosat programme for using space data in meteorology not only brought new research topics into the Institute of Atmospheric Physics, but also required intensive collaboration with parallel institutions working on Earth observation. Two large-scale pieces of equipment were purchased for the site: the meteorological research aircraft Falcon and the stationary cloud radar system on the roof of the institute.

The site contributed two experiments to the first Spacelab flight, both of which built upon the findings from the aircraft measurement programme and the experience gained from working on the very latest electronic and optical reconnaissance systems. Scientists based there were also working on a laser sensor system suitable for space flight. All three projects and their follow-up research would go on to determine the work of employees for decades to come. Using the metric camera on Spacelab and the MOMS multispectral scanner created by German industry, the researchers developed a camera development program whose technology would later feed into all stereo-capable camera systems. The MRSE microwave experiment was unsuccessful at the Spacelab, but it served as an opportunity to design and build improved, space flight-capable radar systems at Oberpfaffenhofen in conjunction with German industry, all the way up to the X-SAR system.

Second refocusing: emphasis on manned space flight at Oberpfaffenhofen (1985–1995)

5 November 1985 marked a new turning point for Oberpfaffenhofen. On this day, Minister-President of the state of Bavaria, Franz Josef Strauss, was invited to visit the German Spacelab Mission D-1 and announced a programme of major investment to promote Oberpfaffenhofen's role in European space travel.

A new control centre for manned space flight was built at the location, which had been called 'DLR' since 1989. A laboratory was also set up specifically for simulating the coupling of manned spacecraft and incorporating mission-critical simulation systems. Ultimately, the DFD would go on to become Germany's national data centre. A working group focused entirely on space robotics was provided with the necessary computers and devices.

Meanwhile, the research institutes in Oberpfaffenhofen were taking on an increasingly important role. At times, they would assume a leadership role in whole series of projects. The Earth observation institutes, for instance, would work with the DFD to develop and implement technology-oriented space missions using radar and multispectral scanner technology. By this point, satellite meteorology was firmly established at the Institute of Atmospheric Physics. The findings from this area represented one of the most important input variables for modelling global weather patterns using the high-performance mainframe computers acquired by DLR.

Franco-German TV broadcasting satellites (TV-SAT/TDS) and German telecommunications satellites (DFS) defined work at the Institute of Communications Technology and the Space Operations Centre. The Challenger catastrophe and the failure of an Ariane rocket in 1985, resulting in programme delays of several years, put a dampener on the positive onward development of the site. The failure of the first German television broadcasting satellite TV-Sat 1 also prompted policymakers to postpone national or bi-national programs in favour of projects by international organisations. Nevertheless, this phase was also one of Oberpfaffenhofen's most successful in terms of public outreach.

The press and public relations efforts that were now standard at DLR made every satellite launch a major event, with the 14-day D2 Spacelab mission a particular highlight. After the fall of the Iron Curtain, newfound cooperation between Germany and Russia also met with great public interest. For ten years, the direct satellite transmission line between Moscow and Oberpfaffenhofen was the 'umbilical cord' of German-Russian cooperation.

Alignment with changing research conditions (1995–2004)

Changes within the German research landscape led to significant changes at Oberpfaffenhofen. During the D2 mission, it became clear that the location would have to respond to the financial and scheduling problems that arose during the Columbus space station project. A certain division of labour was agreed between national and international organisations. The research institutes had to stand up to external assessment criteria, as it could no longer assume prime responsibility for large space projects following the creation of the German Agency for Space Affairs (DARA). This was followed only by a brief German mission to the MIR station.

Scientists at Oberpfaffenhofen operated the payload for the ESA-EUROMIR Mission 1995 on behalf of ESA, which served as a demonstration of the division of labour as part of the COLUMBUS programme. In 2003, the ESA commissioned DLR to operate the Columbus module, which was transported to the International Space Station (ISS) in 2008 by shuttle. A dedicated Columbus Control Centre was set up in Oberpfaffenhofen for that purpose.

The research institutes at the site also had to adjust to the new overall conditions. The Institute of Robotics and Mechatronics and the Institute of Atmospheric Physics succeeded in gaining worldwide scientific recognition for research that was no longer defined by large-scale projects. The Communications Technology and Remote Sensing facilities, which were now handing satellite navigation tasks have now grown, were restructured.

Source: Franz Schlude

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