Tribute to Reimar Lüst
German national, Reimar Lüst, known for his research on the solar system, cosmic radiation and plasma physics, hydrodynamics and nuclear fusion, pioneer of European space research, died on the night of 31 March in Hamburg, at the age of 97. The son of a Lutheran Pastor, born in Wuppertal-Barmen on March 25, 1923, he studied at Kassel High School from 1933 to 1941, then did his military service in the Navy as a mechanical engineer in the North Sea. Bombed aboard Submarine 528 by Anglo-American aircraft, on the way to sinking at a depth of 320 m, he managed, thanks to physical strength and an unusual chance, to get out alive. After a swim of several kilometers under fire from enemy destroyers, he was taken prisoner of war in England and then in the United States at Mexia, Texas, from 1943 to 1946. During this forced stay he made his mark as a brilliant engineer and scientist. In 1946, Returning to Germany, he studied physics at the Johann-Wolgang-Goethe University in Frankfurt, where he obtained a degree in physics in 1949, and in 1951 became an assistant at the Max Planck Institute of Physics in Gottingen, where he obtained his PhD in Theoretical Physics under the direction of Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker and Werner Heisenberg of the Max Planck Institute. In 1955-56 he was a Fulbright Scholar at the Enrico Fermi Institute at the University of Chicago and then at Princeton. In 1956 he became the father of the future physicist Dieter Lüst, now director of the Max Planck Institute for Physics in Munich, thus one of Heisenberg’s successors.
In 1961, he was called upon by the Max Planck Society to take over a working group to establish the beginnings of the German space program. Two years later the MEP was born, the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics, associated with the Institute of Physics and Astrophysics at Garching near Munich, whose program was the study by rocket probes of the Earth’s environment and its interaction with the solar wind, a delicate task due to disarmament restrictions imposed by the Allies. In search of possible scientific cooperation, he is invited to meet at the COSPAR Assemblies and scientific symposiums, several pioneers of European space research including Jacques-Blamont, head of the Aeronomy Service focused on the study of the Earth’s atmosphere by probe rockets. With Blamont he established a friendly and decisive relationship for the future development of the European space programme. Between 1959-1965, From the firing ranges of the Ile du Levant in France and Hammaguir in the Algerian Sahara, Lüst and Blamont will conduct their experiments with, among others, the Véronique rocket, a german V2 successor, capable of reaching 200 km altitude that allowed them to probe the upper atmosphere via sodium ejections and the movement of the Earth’s magnetic field at high altitudes with clouds. In the post-war context, these experiences would not have been able to take place without the French hospitality and attraction that Lüst exerted on his colleagues.
This camaraderie opened the door to European scientific cooperation and in 1962 he became the technical director of the European Space Research Council, from which ESRO, the forerunner of ESA, founded by Pierre Auger and Eduardo Amaldi (creators of CERN), was born and of which he was the first scientific director. In 1972 he became president of the Max Planck Society and in 1984 he was elected Director General of ESA by the board chaired by Hubert Curien, a position he held until 1990. During his tenure, Ariane 5 will be decided, participation in the future International Space Station, the start of studies on the shuttle Hermes (which he did not like too much!) and the scientific program Horizon 2000 which made ESA the second largest space science agency in the world. In 1989 he became president of the Alexander Von Humboldt Foundation. In 1995 with his friend Johannes Geiss, he founded the International Space Science Institute in Bern and in 2001 Jacobs University in Bremen.
His many positions of responsibility led him to meet with heads of state and government. Together with his wife Nina Grunenberg, a journalist at Die Zeit, they were closely linked to Chancellor Helmut Schmidt. A great friend of France, an officer of the Legion of Honour, he leaves to his collaborators and all those who knew him the memory of a great scientist, a great manager, demanding and efficient, with immense political talent, and faithful in his friendships.