West Germans unfazed by their first 'astronaut'

His kind of ''right stuff'' isn't the daredevil macho of the test pilot. It is instead the precision, curiosity, and stick-to-it-iveness of the pre-21 st-century physicist.

His mother seems to have known all along that this was just the kind of ''right stuff'' that is called for in this day and age, judging from her confident remarks to the press. But so far his fellow Germans aren't paying much attention to him at all.

Such is the current status of Ulf Merbold, first Western European astronaut to piggyback an American shuttle into space, first physicist and second German in space, and tender of Europe's first Spacelab. By the time this article is in print, Dr. Merbold will be well into his nine-day Columbia orbit, with fellow MIT scientist Byron K. Lichtenberg and four other American astronauts.

So far Merbold has been spared the blitz of publicity that hit Alan Shepard, John Glenn, and Sally Ride.

Perhaps what accounts for this is a European reserve that respects privacy and shrinks from the American zeal for probing the families, hobbies, and life styles of the knights of space.

On the other hand, this indifference might reflect sheer boredom after so many American astronauts and Soviet - and East German and Cuban - cosmonauts have already pioneered the heavens.

Or it might mean that the Germans take it for granted that, since they launched those first rockets three decades ago, they would eventually get back into the game. Or that after several postponed starts of the Columbia flight German journalists have exhausted their enthusiasm for previews.

Whatever the cause, only one of West Germany's national newspapers - the Suddeutsche Zeitung - bothered to report from Cape Canaveral on the morning of the launch Monday. Suddeutsche's coverage focuses on the plasma and metallurgy and medical research for the $1 billion, 11-nation European Space Agency lab rather than on the personality of Merbold.

Actually, the public persona of Merbold leaves a lot to the imagination. What is known is that he is 42, married, has a daughter of 8 and a son of 4, likes to fly gliders, and will be welcomed back - once his sabbatical in space is over - at the Max Planck Metals Research Institute in Stuttgart.

And he survived better than did any of the 2,000 other candidates for his seat on the Columbia the cross-examination of his laboratory cool and all the pummeling, tumbling, poking, whirling, vibrating, pressurizing, depressurizing, and assorted other tortures of the Cologne-suburb Institute of Aviation Medicine.

He and his fellow American biologist astronaut (or non-astronauts, as they are inelegantly called) are the first of a new breed. They personify the routinization of space, the normalization of the computer bus to the stars.

They don't fly spaceships like Columbia commander John W. Young and Orbiter pilot Brewster H. Shaw Jr. They aren't even professional astronauts like the fifth and sixth members of the Columbia team, PhDs Owen K. Garriott and Robert A. R. Parker. They are amateur astronauts who are just temporarily transferring their usual research to weightlessness.

They will be followed by other German and Dutch non-astronaut scientists when West Germany moves from half-ownership and financing of the current Spacelab to launch its own national spacelab in 1985. Soon enough they will undoubtedly be followed by generations of scientists and mechanics and artists and poets and other lay passengers in space who find their leaps away from Earth as natural as today's tourists find transatlantic flight.

The time of space heroes is past, it seems. Ulf Merbold is quite ordinary.

And thereby hangs a tale.

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