Ulf Merbold has logged 55 days in space over three missions. This makes him the German with the highest number of spaceflights, although that is not his only historic distinction. When he took off on 28 November 1983 from the Kennedy Space Centre aboard Space Shuttle Columbia, he was the first foreigner to fly into orbit on a US space vehicle. Five other astronauts flew into orbit alongside Merbold for the 10-day STS-9 mission. This human spaceflight mission was also a first for the German Aerospace Center, DLR – the DLR-operated German Space Operations Center in Oberpfaffenhofen successfully oversaw its first human spaceflight.
Born in 1941, Merbold's scientific career commenced at age 19 when as a citizen of the German Democratic Republic, he went to the University of Stuttgart (Universität Stuttgart) to study physics, his favourite subject. From 1967 to 1978, he focused on problems in solid-state physics at the then Max Planck Institute for Metals Research (Max-Planck-Institut für Metallforschung) in Stuttgart. He moved to the European Space Agency (ESA) in 1976, two years after receiving his Doctorate. He qualified for his mission on the Space Shuttle in 1983 during this period. This flight was also the first time the ESA-built Spacelab laboratory module was used; more than 70 experiments were performed in a microgravity environment.
Nine years on, Merbold flew into space on Space Shuttle Discovery during STS-42/IML-1 mission, launching on 22 January 1992 and returning to Earth on 30 January. Discovery carried the International Microgravity Laboratory-1 (IML-1) into orbit, enabling investigation of the complex influences of zero gravity on living organisms.
Immediately after his second Shuttle mission, Merbold began preparing for the Russian Euromir 94 mission. The experienced astronaut commenced his third journey into space on 3 October 1994 and he remained in the Mir space station until 4 November 1994. Merbold was the first ESA astronaut on a Russian mission. Euromir 1994 was the first ESA mission to the Russian space station Mir, and it served primarily as the precursor to Columbus – preparing experimenters and the ground segment for the Columbus era. On behalf of ESA, DLR was responsible for the creation of procedures, crew training and crew support, and for carrying out simulations.
From 1999 to 2004, Merbold was responsible for Utilisation Promotion Management in the Microgravity Promotion Division of the ESA Department of Human Spaceflight and Microgravity in the Netherlands. He officially retired in 2004, but continues to work as a consultant for ESA.