In memoriam Hans Balsiger


The University of Bern has lost another prominent scientist in the department of space research, Hans Balsiger, less than a year after the death of Johannes Geiss. The former director of the Physics Institute and professor for experimental physics at the University of Bern died on 19 January 2021 after a long illness at the age of 83. Hans Balsiger was significantly involved enhancing the worldwide reputation of Swiss Space research in Bern.

Hans Balsiger started his career at the University of Bern, where he studied experimental physics and where he got his PhD in 1967. His PhD thesis with Professor Johannes Geiss dealt with terrestrial and meteoritic materials, for which he determined their ages using lab mass spectrometry with instruments affectionately named Susanne and Atlas.

Soon after his PhD, he started developing instruments for space. Together with Prof. Ernest Kopp he built electronics for the first space instrument of the University of Bern, which was launched on a rocket by the company Contraves in 1967. In parallel, he worked on the first space qualified mass spectrometer, an instrument for the European GEOS mission for the exploration of the terrestrial magnetosphere. From 1968 to 1970, he was a Postdoctoral Fellow (ESRO/NASA) at Rice University in Texas, where he worked on the Apollo-12 ALSEP Suprathermal Ion Detector Experiment. This allowed him to witness the first and second Moon landing directly at NASA in Houston.

1970 he came back to Bern to the group of Johannes Geiss as senior research assistant-lecturer. After some delays, «his» GEOS-experiments were finally launched in 1977 and 1978. The first flight ended up in an unforeseen elliptical orbit so that a second instrument had to be built. In 1979, Hans Balsiger got his habilitation; in 1984, he was promoted to extraordinarius and finally in 1990 he became full professor. From 1993 until he became emeritus in 2003 he was the director of the physics institute.

Hans had always been a team player, in his professional career as well as in sports. He played soccer, water polo and handball, which fitted his character very well. He was athletic and besides being active himself, he acted as a newspaper reporter, especially about water polo on Sundays, which gave him a small additional income during his studies. Between 1967 and 1974, he acted regularly as captain of the physics football team, which sometimes even reached the finals of the University championship.

After the successful GEOS missions Hans was part of many other missions: Co-investigator for the Plasma Composition Experiment on ISEE-1 (International Sun Earth Explorer), Co-investigator for the solar wind experiment on Ulysses around the poles of the Sun, for the Dynamics Explorer and AMPTE Energetic Ion Mass Spectrometer and for the WIND, POLAR, SOHO, and CLUSTER missions. A first culmination of his career was certainly the Giotto mission to comet Halley in 1986, where Hans was the principal investigator for the successful ion mass spectrometer. This success led to another point of culmination, the development and launch (2004) of the ROSINA instrument for the Rosetta mission to comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.

It is not just luck that Hans Balsiger was heavily involved with so many missions. His scientific competence, his passion, his pragmatism, and especially his sense of humor and his true humanity were highly valued, by scientific colleagues, by ESA and NASA, by political bodies, by the Swiss industry as well as by young academics.

This also led to the fact that Hans was a member of many scientific and political bodies where he could help forming space research in Switzerland and at ESA. He was a member and sometimes president of several scientific advisory committees of ESA: Solar System Working Group, Senior Space Science Advisory Committee; Long-term Space Policy Committee and from 1996 to 1999 he presided over the top level ESA panel, the Science Program Committee, which is the deciding body of ESA. In Switzerland, he was president of the commission for space research of the Academy of Sciences; he was a member of the federal commission for space and a member of the Forschungsrat of the SNF.

People, who believed that once Hans became emeritus he then would retire, were clearly wrong. He continued to play an active role with the ROSINA instrument and was in his office at the university every day almost up to his death. This helped to pass on his large knowledge to reams of young scientists, an important pillar for the success of ROSINA. From 2004 to 2009, he presided the international foundation «High alpine research station Jungfraujoch and Gornergrat».

Hans Balsiger was not only a very good scientist, but also an excellent diplomat, with a lot of common sense, shrewdness and with a poker face. How do you win a contract for a space instrument vis-a-vis a strong competition? Yes, you need an excellent proposal, a good network and an impeccable reputation. However, you will become unbeatable if you invite all competitors into your team. That is how Hans won the battle for ROSINA in 1996 from ESA. ESA offered a contract containing one sensor and 21 kg. Hans, with his poker face, refused. ESA had no alternative than to relent and that is how ROSINA was built with 3 sensors and 35 kg. Shortly afterwards, NASA announced that they would not finance their contribution to ROSINA, which was essential for the instrument. Subsequently, Hans Balsiger was travelling around the world, conducting bilateral discussions with the responsible of the French and German space agencies, with the Swiss Space Office and with the NASA administrator. In the end, there was a deal, albeit only an oral one and it was such that nobody, not even Hans understood it anymore. Nevertheless, it worked and that is how ROSINA got supported by NASA.

Hans was persistent, he was able to argue sometimes heatedly – it is not a coincidence that his name in the boy scouts was «Bäggu (squaller)» –, but his standpoints were always very well justified and he never attacked people on a personal level. He was fighting for the case and if somebody presented good arguments, he could be turned around. His sense of humor has certainly helped that his scientific colleagues and his opponents always respected him. When he was talking, people listened. Hans always took the time for the problems of his co-workers. He made demands, but he also promoted, he was a human boss for all.

With the death of Hans Balsiger less than a year after the death of Johannes Geiss this marks the end of an era, which has catapulted the physics institute and the University of Bern to a top level in space research.

The many letters of condolence after the death of Hans from colleagues of the institute, the University, from ESA and NASA people are witnesses to his high standing in space research, but even more to his human qualities. He was key for my personal career as well as for many other former co-workers. He has left a significant scientific and personal imprint in all of our lives. Hans, we miss your sense of humor, your worldly wisdom and your optimism.

Kathrin Altwegg, Universität Bern



[Published: May 2021]