A rare opportunity for Europeans who dream of giving up the mundane duties of life on Earth, the European Space Agency (ESA) is recruiting for the first time in more than a decade new astronauts, in order to increase diversity.
Of the agency’s seven astronauts now ready to be sent on a mission to the International Space Station (ISS), only Italian Samantha Cristoforetti, 43, is female.
But now ESA is encouraging women to apply for two dozen new jobs. And he is launching an effort to enable people with disabilities to travel in space, as part of a program called the “Parastronauts Feasibility Project”.
“You don’t have to be a superman or a superwoman,” agency recruiting director Lucy van der Tas said in an interview. “We want to motivate as many people as possible to apply. But, ultimately, we are looking for very specific candidates.
The objective is to select four to six astronauts, in addition to twenty alternates, who could take part in shorter missions. Recruits with disabilities would first join the alternative group and work with the agency to identify any changes needed so they can go into space.
“We really believe that if we don’t start now, it will never happen,” Van ter Tas said. “We are opening the door for a certain part of society so that its members can also dream of becoming astronauts.”
There is currently no guarantee that a disabled astronaut will be able to get to space.
The successful candidate will not be “a space tourist who also happens to have a disability,” said David Parker, director of ESA’s robotics and spaceflight program. Van der Tas explained that recruits will need to have the motor skills necessary to be able to work and leave the space station unassisted in emergency situations.
Since life on the space station feels like constant confinement, recruits also need to see and hear. “Once all the astronauts are locked together in a small space, the only way for them to communicate with anyone is through a screen,” said Van der Tas.
The astronaut selection process takes 18 months and includes psychological tests, medical exams, psychometric exams and interviews.
The last few selected will participate in missions to the International Space Station or, in the longer term, even to the Moon or even to Mars. Before that, however, they will have to undergo several years of arduous training which includes learning survival skills, such as using the spacecraft, acquiring fluency in the Russian language and spending up to eight hours. underwater to simulate weightless conditions.
Applicants must have minimum qualifications, ESA said, including a master’s degree in natural sciences, medicine, engineering, mathematics or computer science, or a test pilot’s license, in addition to a minimum of three years of relevant work experience.
Applicants must demonstrate that they will be able to meet the various challenges of space travel. Daily life in a space station is about doing personal hygiene with baby wipes instead of showers, intense physical exertion, meals consisting of dehydrated and packaged foods, and continuous weightlessness, which transforms everyday activities like sleep and urinate.
Astronauts should also be prepared to participate in life science experiments. One of its main tasks is to find out what is the effect of space on the human body.
“Space is a very hostile environment for humans,” said Jennifer Ngo-Anh, coordinator of ESA’s research and cargo program. “Radiation levels are high, crews live autonomously in confined and confined vessels and are exposed to weightlessness, triggering marked bodily adaptations.”
Some of the 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 a lot.”
Until now, 90% of all astronauts have been men. The European Space Agency only sent two women into space: Samantha Cristoforetti and Claudie Haigneré, who took part in two missions, in 1996 and 2001.
When the agency was last recruited in 2008, only 16% of the 8,000 applicants were women.
Van der Tas explained that recruiting more women has scientific advantages. “Space affects us in very different ways, depending 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.”
In an attempt to encourage more young women to pursue scientific careers, in 2019 a Cristoforetti-inspired Barbie doll was released. The Italian astronaut has just started training for another mission, which usually takes around two years. When she leaves, she will be leaving behind her daughter, 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, the single mother of a young girl, who is preparing for a mission of one. year in space.
Cristoforetti had a meeting with the film’s lead actress, Eva Green, and director, Alice Winococour. She said she wanted the film to be “as close to reality as possible”.
“Rarely do movies show women as mothers and superheroes as well,” the director said. “It’s time for women to think they can be both astronauts and mothers at the same time.”