Wubbo Ockels, First Dutch Astronaut to Fly in Space, Dies at 68

European Space Agency (ESA) Astronaut Wubbo Ockels
European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut Wubbo Ockels works in the Spacelab D-1 module during the STS-61A mission aboard the space shuttle Challenger in November 1985. Ockels, 68, died on May 18, 2014 as a result of a renal cancer. (Image credit: NASA)

Wubbo Ockels, who in 1985 became the first Dutch citizen to fly into space, died Sunday (May 18), the European Space Agency (ESA) confirmed. He was 68.

"Sad to hear former ESA astronaut Wubbo Ockels passed away this morning," agency officials wrote on Twitter.

Ockels' death was due to complications from renal cancer. In May 2013, he confirmed to Dutch news services that he had been diagnosed with an aggressive kidney cancer and that it had spread to his lungs. [The Most Memorable Space Shuttle Missions]

Ockels first and only space mission was onboard the last successful flight of the space shuttle Challenger, prior to its loss in January 1986. As a member of the eight-person STS-61A crew, Ockels helped set a record for the largest group of people to fly to and from space together.

The seven-day space shuttle mission lifted off on Oct. 30, 1985, carrying the Spacelab D-1 module and more than 75 experiments focused on the behavior of fluids, materials, biological samples and the human body in microgravity.

"I went on board [the mission] as a payload specialist and was responsible for the scientific experiments," recounted Ockels in an interview with Delft University of Technology, where he later taught as a professor. "That's how I learned about the medical and biological side of things but also, for instance, about materials engineering."

Ockels was twice considered for a second trip to space. New safety precautions put into place after the Challenger tragedy however, precluded his again flying as an eighth crew member onboard STS-55, the Spacelab D-2 mission, in 1993. He was also a candidate for a mission to Russia's Mir space station, but was medically disqualified.

Ockels retired from the European astronaut corps in 1994. In total, he logged 7 days and 44 minutes in space.

Wubbo Johannes Ockels was born on March 28, 1946 in Almelo, the Netherlands. He considered the Dutch city of Groningen his hometown.

Ockels studied physics and mathematics at the University of Groningen, earning his degree in 1973. Five years later, he earned his doctorate based on the experimental work he was doing at the Nuclear Physics Accelerator Institute (KVI) in Groningen.

It was only then that Ockels first considered becoming an astronaut.

"In the laboratory where I worked, in the hall on the notice board one day appeared a notice in Dutch, an opportunity to be a scientific astronaut," Ockels shared in a 2010 ESA interview. "Some colleagues of mine had put some jokes on it, but when I saw it I thought, 'Well wait [a] minute, this could be serious,' and so I wrote for extra information."

"I remember when I got the information, I thought, 'This is my job,'" he continued. "It was just so perfect that it was exactly what I wanted to do so I applied."

Ockels became one of three European payload specialists selected to train for Spacelab missions. In May 1980, he reported to NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston for a year of basic training and then served as a backup crew member for the first flight of Spacelab.

From Nov. 28 through Dec. 8, 1983, Ockels served as a ground communicator and liaison-scientist for the crew on board space shuttle Columbia's STS-9 mission. [NASA's Space Shuttle Program in Pictures]

His STS-61A mission established him as the first Dutch citizen to fly in space, but he was not the first Dutch-born astronaut. Lodewijk van den Berg, a naturalized American, preceded Ockels into space by six months. Still, Ockels gained fame for representing the Netherlands in orbit.

"It's a fact that you become a well-known person in your country, and that's unavoidable," Ockels told ESA. "I see it as a responsibility."

"It's a responsibility to use that for a good mission," said Ockels. "My mission is sustainability and innovation and youth. I'm very happy to have this opportunity."

After flying in space, Ockels supported human spaceflight activities from the European Space Agency research and technology center, ESTEC, in Noordwijk, the Netherlands, before heading ESA's education and outreach office.

In 2003, Ockels accepted a full-time position at the Delft University of Technology as its professor of aerospace for sustainable engineering and technology, dealing with the exploitation of alternative sources of energy. In this role, Ockels was involved in the development of the innovative kite-driven Laddermill high-altitude wind turbine and Nuna solar powered car, twice leading a team of students to a victory in the bi-annual World Solar Challenge in Australia.

Ockels, who credited his spaceflight for shaping his views about "life, about the Earth, about our dependence on the Earth [and] about how we see the Cosmos," described his pursuit of sustainability as "Happy Energy."

"Essentially, people subconsciously feel unhappy about the fact that each kilometer you drive in your car leaves a trail of pollution and misery in its wake," Ockels remarked. "If you were to opt for sustainability, consuming less fossil fuel, you'd automatically feel better."

"Children understand instinctively what 'Happy Energy' is about," Ockels continued. "During my lectures for children I explain that they are astronauts from spaceship Earth and they have to make sure that order is maintained. They find that perfectly logical."

"There's something very appealing about Happy Energy," Ockels said. "After all, you're talking about something that really matters."

Ockels was honored for his spaceflight and sustainability work in 2000 with the naming of a small planetoid by the International Astronomical Union (IAU). The asteroid, 9496 Ockels, orbits the Sun between Mars and Jupiter.

STS-61A payload specialist Wubbo Ockels floats in the Spacelab D-1 module during the space shuttle Challenger mission. (Image credit: NASA)

Ockels' daughter Gean wrote his biography, "Seven Lives of Wubbo Ockels," in 2010.

"It's partly biographical and recounts the five times I very narrowly escaped death," Ockels described. "Starting with a life-threatening tropical illness (1982), a collision with an Airbus at Lille airport (1989), a cardiac arrest in 2005 and finally a kidney tumour (2008). I'm in my sixth life, so only one left to go."

Ockels is survived by his wife Joos Swaving, two children and two grandchildren.

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Robert Z. Pearlman
collectSPACE.com Editor, Space.com Contributor

Robert Pearlman is a space historian, journalist and the founder and editor of collectSPACE.com, an online publication and community devoted to space history with a particular focus on how and where space exploration intersects with pop culture. Pearlman is also a contributing writer for Space.com and co-author of "Space Stations: The Art, Science, and Reality of Working in Space” published by Smithsonian Books in 2018. He previously developed online content for the National Space Society and Apollo 11 moonwalker Buzz Aldrin, helped establish the space tourism company Space Adventures and currently serves on the History Committee of the American Astronautical Society, the advisory committee for The Mars Generation and leadership board of For All Moonkind. In 2009, he was inducted into the U.S. Space Camp Hall of Fame in Huntsville, Alabama. In 2021, he was honored by the American Astronautical Society with the Ordway Award for Sustained Excellence in Spaceflight History.