As a rare opportunity for Europeans dreaming of leaving behind the day-to-day duties of life on earth, the European Space Agency (ESA) is recruiting new astronauts for the first time in more than a decade, facing the increasing diversity.
Of the agency’s seven astronauts now ready to be sent on missions to the International Space Station (ISS), only 43-year-old Italian Samantha Cristoforetti is a woman.
But now ESA is encouraging women to apply for two dozen new jobs. A program called “Parastronaut Feasibility Project” aims to give people with disabilities the opportunity to travel into space.
“You don’t have to be a superman or a superwoman,” said Lucy van der Tas, the agency’s recruiting director, in an interview. “We want to motivate as many people as possible to apply. Ultimately, however, we are looking for very specific candidates. “
The aim is to select four to six astronauts and around 20 deputies who could take part in shorter missions. Disabled recruits would first join the alternate group and work with the agency to identify any changes needed to get them into space.
“We really believe that if we don’t start now, it will never happen,” said Van ter Tas. “We are opening the door to a certain section of society so that its members can also dream of becoming astronauts.”
There is currently no guarantee that a disabled astronaut can get into space.
The candidate that is accepted will not be a “space tourist who happens to be disabled,” said David Parker, director of ESA’s Robotics and Space program. Van der Tas explained that recruits must have the necessary motor skills to work unassisted in emergency situations and to be able to leave the space station.
Given that life on the space station is like a constant restriction, the recruits need to see and hear too. “Once all astronauts are connected in a small space, they can only communicate with others through a screen,” said Van der Tas.
The astronaut selection process lasts 18 months and includes psychological tests, medical examinations, psychometric examinations and interviews.
The last selected will take part in missions to the International Space Station or, in the longer term, even to the moon or even to Mars. Before that, however, they must complete several years of arduous training, which includes learning survival skills such as operating the spacecraft, learning the Russian language, and simulating weightless conditions underwater for up to eight hours.
Candidates must have some minimum qualifications, ESA said, including a master’s degree in science, medicine, engineering, math or computer science or a test pilot license, in addition to at least three years of relevant work experience.
Candidates must demonstrate that they can cope with the diverse challenges of space travel. Daily life in a space station includes personal hygiene with baby wipes instead of showering, strenuous physical exertion, meals made from dehydrated and packaged foods, and continuous weightlessness that alters everyday activities such as sleeping and urinating.
Astronauts must also be willing to take part in life science experiments. One of its main tasks is to find out how space affects the human body.
“Space is a very hostile environment for humans,” said Jennifer Ngo-Anh, coordinator of ESA’s research and cargo program. “There is a lot of radiation, the crews live autonomously in narrow and narrow ships and are exposed to weightlessness, which leads to significant physical adaptations.”
Temporary physical consequences of a long stay in space include loss of muscle mass, bone mass, physical strength, and blood volume.
“The astronaut has to be a versatile person,” said van der Tas. “You don’t have to be the best at anything, but you have to be good at many things.”
So far, 90% of all astronauts have been men. The European Space Agency sent only two women into space in 1996 and 2001: Samantha Cristoforetti and Claudie Haigneré, who participated in two missions.
When the agency was last hired in 2008, only 16% of the 8,000 candidates were women.
Van der Tas said that recruiting more women has scientific advantages. “Space affects us in very different ways, based on age, gender and ethnicity,” she said. “The global pool of astronauts is very small, so we need to diversify it as much as possible.”
To encourage more young women to pursue a career in science, a Cristoforetti-inspired Barbie doll was launched in 2019. The Italian astronaut has just started training for another mission, which usually takes about two years. If she leaves she will leave her daughter behind, who is now 4 years old.
And then she will be able to face some of the challenges highlighted in a recent film “Proxima”, which tells the story of a French astrophysicist, mother of a young daughter, who is on a year-long mission in space prepared.
Cristoforetti had a meeting with the film’s lead actress, Eva Green, and the director, Alice Winococour. She said she wanted the film to be “as realistic as possible”.
“It’s rare that the cinema shows women as mothers and superheroes,” said the director. “It is time for women to believe that they can be astronauts and mothers at the same time.”