VIP-Interview FuchsVIP-Interview: Prof. Manfred Fuchs

We talked to the Chief Executive Officer of OHB-System AG in Bremen on its strategy.

FR: Professor Fuchs, you are the head of one of the most important family-owned space companies in Germany. How did this come about?

Prof. Manfred Fuchs: I studied aircraft construction at university. At the end of the 1950s space technology was not yet an academic subject. In 1961 I was sent to Bremen as an aerodynamicist, and because I was able to perform trajectory computations, it was almost by chance that I witnessed the foundation of Entwicklungsring Nord (ERNO). While I was there, I was involved on all the projects, so, for example, I sat in same office in which the VFW 614 was born. The first project 611 was already a small launcher, for at that time we did not yet make any distinction between aviation and space. It all came from a single bureau. For superstitious reasons, there never was a 613.

FR: So was space not a particularly difficult specialised field back then?

Fuchs: No it wasnt. We started virtually at first principles. We had no information, not from the Americans either. We taught ourselves everything, but we also had very good people. Gradually our work was consolidated and we developed interesting ideas such as the Boomerang test launch vehicle or the concept of the modular Spacelab space laboratory.

FR: So how did your own company OHB come about?

Fuchs: At the beginning of the 1980s I said to my wife that I would like to work for myself. Quite by chance we got to know the Otto family, who were working on electronics and hydraulics, primarily under contract to the Bundeswehr. My wife joined the company first, and I followed in 1985. Back in 1961 I had had the idea with several others that we could carry out development work in a separate company, in ten years time perhaps, but it ended up being more than twenty.

FR: Over the years you have succeeded in growing OHB to a considerable size. Would you still describe the company today as medium-sized?

Fuchs: As the Fuchs Group, today we employ over 1,000 staff in the high-technology area with high value creation. In Bremen alone, 95 percent of the workforce are graduates. I still like to think of us as medium-sized, but under EU rules we already fall under the category of small group of companies, so we dont qualify for grants any more.

FR: German industry is currently ringing its hands trying to get hold of well-trained engineers. Do you have that problem too?

Fuchs: Although we are growing, we dont have any problems in that department. Virtually every day we receive applications from all over Germany, so we are able to pick and choose our staff. I imagine that space technology is particularly attractive to young graduates.

FR: Although you really concentrate on development work, you took over MAN Technologie, a purely production operation, in a difficult situation.

Fuchs: As I was also involved in the development of the Europa launcher at ERNO, I would describe myself as an old hand at launchers. We decided to buy the company based on a gut feeling. After all, the teething problems of the Ariane 5 couldnt go on for ever. Of course the take-over was a risk, but we also had a little luck, so we were able to restore the company to profit relatively quickly.

FR: The European space industry has for long been calling for planning certainty for future projects. What is your assessment of the current situation?

Fuchs: For about two years there have been no further cutbacks in space work in Germany. Funding is no longer being cut, and in fact since December 2005 it has even been increased. Up to then Germany had fallen by the wayside compared with other European countries. On the other hand people are already talking about a new competition in space you just have to look at China or India, both of which have their sights set on the moon, amongst other things and we still have quite a lot of catching up to do.

FR: The moon is your favourite topic. What would you like to do in this area?

Fuchs: When I initiated the Mona Lisa lunar research project a few years ago, people thought I was mad. But since then we have been able to get all kinds of things in motion. Especially since the change of government, a more positive attitude to such issues has been discernible in government circles. It helps when politicians are not afraid of technology. On the other hand the upswing still needs to gain further momentum. For example, France, which has a smaller population, spends twice as much on space as Germany does.

FR: Would you say that German politicians are lacking in vision?

Fuchs: Only up to a point. It is my experience that hardly any politician is actually opposed to space. It is down to us to put the case for doing a project really well. When one does that, one gets support. A lot of politicians simply lack the information, although the public is very interested.

FR: When you won SAR-Lupe, you drove some well-known partners out of the field. How did that come about?

Fuchs: We were simply more innovative, and we are protecting German jobs. Our flexible structure no doubt also contributed. We were able to take the best components from the market, whereas the competition always has to use their own.

FR: What are your plans for the next few years?

Fuchs: We are hoping for some follow-up work on SAR-Lupe. Besides, the Americans are relatively weak in the area of radar reconnaissance. But for security reasons it is not currently worthwhile operating a private satellite on this basis as one is not allowed to sell satellite images with a resolution of less than one metre. On the other hand we have an order backlog of Euro450 million and our utilisation is high. As for the future, we plan to direct our interests, amongst other things, at the market for small earth exploration satellites since, instead of one big satellites in the Envisat class, people are becoming more interested in building ten small space vehicles. And finally we want to continue our lunar research.

Matthias Gründer was asking the questions.

From FLUG REVUE 5/2007

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