The moon in the black sky

ESA to recruit new cohort of astronauts, including ‘parastronaut’

Image credit: Dreamstime

The European Space Agency (ESA) will be recruiting new European astronauts for the first time in over a decade. The successful candidates will be involved in missions to the ISS and the Moon, including the Lunar Gateway.

Applications will open online for eight weeks, starting from March 31 2021. The process of narrowing down the many hopeful astronauts to a handful of brilliant and highly qualified individuals will take place in six stages over an approximately 18-month period. This process is expected to be completed by October 2022.

David Parker, ESA’s director of human and robotic exploration, explained that ESA will take a more flexible approach with two distinct astronaut profiles: career astronauts and reserve astronauts. There will be four to six career astronauts: permanent ESA staff who serve on and lead long, complex or unusual missions. A pool of up to 20 reserve astronauts will be hired by ESA on limited-term contracts of four years to partake in smaller-scale missions, such as ISS missions for which ESA is a partner.

ESA is also opening a vacancy for an astronaut with some physical disability which would typically exclude them from spaceflight; an illustration on the ESA website depicted an astronaut with dwarfism and another with a prosthetic lower leg. The individual will be at the heart of the ‘Parastronaut’ feasibility study.

ESA will work with international and industrial partners to send them on a “meaningful” mission, with ESA investing in the necessary adaptations to space hardware to enable them to serve fully and safely on the ISS. In the meantime, the successful candidate would be part of ESA’s reserve pool.

“We’re going to investigate the technical and operational feasibility of implementing a meaningful and useful mission by [a person with physical disabilities],” Parker said. “This possibility raises many, many questions, most of which we do not have answers for yet. Obviously, we don’t have our own crew vehicles to fly to the space station today in Europe, so we need to work with all the ISS partners in this and safety is a vital consideration. Nevertheless, we think that if we do not ask the questions, we will not get the answers.

“We are looking for an individual who is psychologically, cognitively, technically and professionally qualified to be an astronaut, but has certain classes of physical limitation that would normally prevent them being selected through the requirements we have. At the moment we are at step zero: the door is closed to some people. We want to change that and go from zero to one.”

UK citizens from essentially any background may apply to become an ESA astronaut – experience in the space sector is not essential – although competition for the handful of positions will be immense. Major Tim Peake, who in 2015 became the first British man in space, was recruited through ESA’s previous astronaut programme.

“Over the next few years and decades, space exploration will become ever more exciting as we travel back to the moon and even further to Mars,” Peake said. “For space missions to succeed, they require highly motivated people from diverse backgrounds to combine their skills and work as a team.

“The next generation of UK citizens have so much to offer the world and so I would encourage anyone who has dreamt of pushing the boundaries of what is possible to take this opportunity to be part of ESA’s future cohort of space pioneers.”

Science minister Amanda Solloway said: “It is time for a new generation of British astronauts to answer this call as we continue working with our European partners to push the boundaries of science and exploration even further.”

ESA’s head of talent acquisition, Lucy van der Tas, laid out the qualifications and qualities of an ESA astronaut. They must be a national from a member state or associate member state and have a postgraduate degree or degree as an experimental test pilot or engineer; at least three years of professional experience in a STEM field; certification from an aviation medical practitioner; fluency in English and good grasp of any second language. A PhD is desirable.

In addition to having the right qualifications, the successful candidate will have excellent social (diplomatic, willing to be a public figure), mental (calm and analytical under pressure) and physical skills (e.g. fine motor skills). They must be prepared for a physically and psychologically intense job associated with risks and dangers which could dramatically impact their body. They must be willing to be involved in studies into the impact of space travel on the human body and mind.

The new astronauts will undergo intensive training, including a three-week course in caving. They will take their first flights to the ISS to participate in research activities and will be part of the first crew to the Moon in the late 2020s and through the 2030s. Missions to the Lunar Gateway - a planned small space station in orbit around the Moon - will begin with this new cabal of astronauts and continue after their terms are complete.

Current ESA astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti said: “Becoming an astronaut has been a dream come true. It brings together many of my passions: science and technology, complex machines, demanding operational environments, international teams, physical fitness, public outreach. And, of course, occasionally you get to ride a rocket to work.”

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