BREMEN, GERMANY - It doesn’t take me long to figure out that this lovely old city that snuggles up to the North Sea is a very special place.
Since beginning an early morning tour, I’ve been taken to outer space, to middle earth and to the future where I get to see what cars will be like in the decades ahead. And I’ve done all that and it’s not even lunchtime.
Bremen may be the best-kept secret on the German tourist map - a delightful place with a 1,200 year history that has its eye squarely focused on the future.
“Hurry, hurry or you’ll miss the bus,” shouts Kurt, the guide who is assembling a small group of tourists for a tour of the local Airbus Space and Defence plant where rockets and modules used in the International Space Station (ISS) are created.
Left: Mercedes' main test track is in Bremen. Right: The city's science centre is state-of-the-art.
“Does everyone have identification - a passport or driver’s licence?” Kurt asks the group. “You will not be permitted into the plant with proper ID - the security is very tight.”
And for good reason. The Bremen Airbus plant’s importance to space exploration makes it one of the most important and guarded facilities in the world - a place where over 1,000 of the most gifted minds on the planet design and build the things needed to go into outer space.
We follow Kurt into the massive plant and find ourselves standing in front of a large window looking into a room where modules for the ISS are being assembled.
“It is so clean inside this room, you can literally eat off the floor,” says Kurt, who quickly adds with a devilish smile, “I wish my floors at home were this clean.”
Dust, dirt and moisture can cause major problems for the space industry so Airbus takes extra steps to make sure the parts added to the Space Station are well protected in this room where the temperature is kept a constant 20.5 Celsius and humidity is always sets at 45 per cent.
Most of the contributions Europe makes to the International Space Station are made in Bremen - the Columbus Space Lab and the unmanned Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) were also born in this plant. In addition, the upper stage of the Ariane 5 launch vehicle was developed here and work on docking vehicles, tank technology, mission planning and research on zero gravity are now going on behind the glass walls.
Kurt leads us through a small museum and shows us packs of dehydrated space food - not very appealing - and then into a much larger room and orders us to look up - hanging over our heads is a giant mock-up of the International Space Station.
“It’s quite impressive, no?” says Kurt, who directs our attention up a flight of steel stairs where the actual Columbus space lab is on display.
“This is the first Columbus capsule and it looks quite primitive to what is being used in the ISS now,” says our energetic guide who leads group tours on Saturdays through the plant.
The site is littered with actual size mockups of ISS capsules and the sleeping quarters and toilet facilities astronauts use while in space draw some interesting reactions from the tour group.
“Did you know female astronauts must stand to pee,” says Kurt. “Yes, they are fitted with a funnel-type device and I’m sure it’s not very comfortable.”
Who knew that little Bremen (pop. 550,000) had so much to offer those with their eyes on outer space.
Bremen University, one of the best educational facilities in Germany, works closely with the many high-tech industries located in this city and after bidding Kurt goodbye, we head to its park-like campus where we tour its unique Science Centre, whose gleaming futuristic buildings look like a cross between a space ship and an oyster.
The centre’s 250 hands-on exhibits keep the young and young at heart among us enthralled for hours.
The theme of the Science Centre is “a journey of discovery for all ages” with a heavy emphasis on Earth and space. Here we get to experience an actual 7.5 earthquake and the “middle earth” exhibit takes us to the very core of our planet.
As we leave, we can’t help but notice a pencil-straight building shaped like a rocket ship standing off by itself in the distance.
“That’s the Bremen Drop Tower and it’s our next stop,” says Petra, our guide.
The 146-metre-high tower, operated by ZARM Industries, is the only “gravity” laboratory in Europe and works closely with Airbus Space and Defence, Bremen University and the other aerospace companies that make this city the smartest in Germany.
Left: Gravity tower. Centre: Making a twister at science centre. Right: Kids get into the experiments.
Staff at the tower explain how they conduct “short term experiments in weightlessness” and tell us that the addition of a catapult system allows for experiments to be extended to 9.3 seconds - unprecedented in any facility of its kind worldwide, apparently.
The excellent mico-gravity conditions created at the Bremen Drop Tower has earned the facility international attention and its staff is kept busy year round. Scientists from all over the world come to Bremen to use the tower for experiments in astrophysics, biology, chemistry, combustion, fluid dynamics, fundamental physics and materials sciences. And, of course, the tower conducts lots of tests preparing and qualifying hardware for space missions.
Just when we think we’ve seen all the exciting Bemen has to offer, our guide tells us “we’re heading to the Mercedes-Benz plant and we have a surprise in store for you.”
Excitement builds as we get closer to the ultra-modern car plant that employees 13,000 and where the company’s popular SL, SLK, C-Class, E-Class Coupé and the GLK models are made. En route, we pass some of Bremen’s other important corporate residents - Kraft Foods, Beck’s Brewery, Jacobs Coffee and the Milka chocolate plant.
A team of Mercedes employees greet us at the entrance and quickly whisks us to the back of the sprawling facility where we get to test drive the sturdy GLK vehicles on a special off-road track.
The group is giddy with excitement as we wheel the SUVs up and down steep inclines, over uneven moonscape terrain and across angled bridges.
Afterwards, we stare in amazement at some of the prototype cars Mercedez-Benz is developing for the future - the sleek F-125 concept car with its space-age skin is the one we all want to take home.
We toast our amazing day in innovative Bremen with a Beck’s and now understand why this small city was named Germany’s “City of Science.”
Tours of the Airbus plant in Bremen are held on Saturdays and last 1.5 hours. Special group tours can also be arranged. / Lufthansa offers daily flights to Bremen from Toronto via Frankfurt. / While in Bremen, make sure you travel to its sister city - Bremerhaven, which is Bremen’s port city. Bremerhaven’s harbour area is an exciting place to tour and its mini-zoo, complete with polar bears, is truly fascinating. / For more on Bremen, Bremerhaven and Germany, go to www.germany.travel