Manfred Fuchs. Credit: OHB

PARIS — Manfred Fuchs, who with his wife, Christa, transformed OHB of Germany from a small naval repair shop into Europe’s third-biggest space hardware prime contractor capable of besting the region’s established giants, died April 26 in Altenburg, Italy, where he had a vacation home, OHB announced April 28. He was 75.

Fuchs’ engineering sense, coupled with his political acumen in working the corridors of power in Germany, grew Bremen, Germany-based OHB into a company that, along with Airbus Defence and Space and Thales Alenia Space, is capable of taking on system-level work on large programs.

The Fuchs couple’s effect on OHB can be compared, on a smaller scale, to Ray Kroc’s arrival at McDonald’s. There was an OHB before Christa Fuchs purchased it in 1981 and Manfred joined in 1985, just as there was a McDonald’s before Kroc. But both companies blossomed into businesses that bore little resemblance to what they were previously.

What the Fuchs couple did with OHB is nothing short of spectacular. With expertise in space station experiments and a modest start in building satellites for German science missions, OHB remained a boutique space contractor until the mid-1990s.

In December 2001 came the consecration: The German Defense Ministry awarded OHB the prime contract to build Germany’s first dedicated military satellite system, the five-satellite SAR-Lupe radar constellation.

Astrium of Germany, part of the broader Astrium group with major installations in France, Britain and Spain in addition to a long heritage in Germany, was thunderstruck. Astrium officials could be heard muttering to themselves about what happened well over a year after the contract’s signature.

A similar German vs. German clash occurred with the decision of the European Space Agency to give Thales Alenia Space of France and Germany, with OHB as partner, the contract for Europe’s next-generation Meteosat geostationary orbiting satellites.

More recently, OHB was given the prime contractor’s job, with Astrium — now called Airbus Defence and Space — as a major subcontractor, for the second-generation radar reconnaissance system, called SARaH.

In another surprising win against its bigger competitors, OHB won two contracts, for a total of 22 satellites, to build Europe’s Galileo constellation of positioning, navigation and timing satellites.

The Airbus and Thales Alenia team on the losing end of the Galileo business conceded after the award that the OHB team had better understood how Europe’s space-business landscape was shifting with the rise of the European Union as a space-project owner in its own right.

Fuchs was born in Italy and at 17 became Italy’s youngest pilot, according to OHB’s biographical data. He arrived in Germany at 18 to work for a space technology company called ERNO, which was subsequently merged into what is now Airbus Defence and Space, Europe’s largest space company.

Over the years, Manfred and Christa Fuchs became Europe’s best-known couple in the space industry. Christa kept the financial accounts, and Manfred looked after the strategy. A series of strap-on acquisitions in Germany, Italy and elsewhere in Europe cemented the company’s position as a builder of Ariane rocket segments, space-station hardware and complete satellites.

He was named an honorary professor at the University of Bremen in 1995, and a decade later received an honorary doctorate from the Technical University of Milan.

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Peter B. de Selding was the Paris Bureau Chief for SpaceNews.