Astronauts wanted: engineers with nerves of steel welcome
Image credit: NASA/ESA
The European Space Agency is looking for astronauts to go to the Moon and beyond. What does it take to get the job? We talk to Frank De Winne, a former astronaut and current head of ESA’s Astronaut Centre in Cologne, Germany.
It’s an exciting time for space enthusiasts around the world. As global space agencies finalise plans for humankind’s grand return to the Moon after more than half a century, they look for the next generation of astronauts to make those new leaps in space exploration. The ambitions are greater than just a few small steps. The Nasa-led Artemis programme plans for a permanent space station in the orbit of the Moon by 2024, as well as an exploration base camp on the lunar South Pole.
After 20 years of routine occupation of the International Space Station (ISS), the Artemis Generation, as Nasa puts it, will teach humankind how to truly live on other worlds. That includes learning how to use local resources to make stuff, including water and oxygen, and remaining for weeks or months at a place some 400,000km away from home, about one thousand times farther than the ISS.
The European Space Agency (ESA) has launched a call for new astronauts, the first in a decade, looking to find up to six technically skilled superhumans who will take these first small steps (or giant leaps) on behalf of the old continent. The application procedure opens on 31 March and ends on 28 May 2021.
The selection process will last for at least 18 months, and is expected to attract over ten thousand applicants. By the end of it, a maximum of six chosen will remain.
Holders of engineering, mathematics, computer, and natural sciences and medical Masters’ degrees with at least three years of professional experience are eligible and so are military test pilots. But the candidates need much more than just technical prowess.
For Frank De Winne, who flew to the International Space Station twice and served as the first European commander of the orbital outpost, the task might be somewhat bittersweet. A child of the 1960s, he himself had dreamed about going to the Moon, but as it transpired, he wasn’t born at exactly the right time to get there.
“If you ask me tomorrow if I am willing to fly to the Moon, I would immediately sign up,” De Winne says. “But I am glad that I can be part of it, even in a different way.”
Before being selected in 1998 as a European Space Agency astronaut, the Belgian served as a fighter jet pilot in his country’s Air Force. His more than 2,300 flying hours on different types of aircraft would probably be enough to prove his ability to stay calm under pressure, the key quality of every aspiring astronaut. A 1997 incident when he successfully landed a fighter jet stricken by an engine failure cemented his reputation as a man with nerves of steel.
Yet, he says, the amount of psychological testing that he had to undergo during the astronaut selection process was “nerve-wracking”.
“It was quite an eye-opener for me back then to see everything people can test in these psychometric tests,” De Winne says. “It was about two days of testing focused on cognitive skills, dexterity, memory skills, and stress resiliency.”
But he is hesitant to reveal what exactly the candidates will experience after the initial CV screening or how many will pass the initial hurdle.
“The whole point is that the candidates don’t know in advance what is going to happen,” he says. “That by itself creates stress. You have a human being put into an unknown situation. These testing methods don’t put people into dangerous situations but predict their ability to cope with them very reliably.”
Jennifer Ngo-Anh, ESA research and payloads programme coordinator for human and robotic exploration, says that there is a lot that fits under the astronaut job description, much of which might not be palatable to everyone. Think about irregular working hours, constant relocations, spending months away from your family. That itself might be a source of stress for many. On top of that, the challenging work is done in multicultural teams with people who might be used to doing things differently and communicate differently, including in a language that might be totally new for most of the astronauts.
“It’s really important to be able to work well as a part of an intercultural and international multidisciplinary team,” Ngo-Anh says. “We work closely with many people from many different backgrounds from all over the world and are very often confronted with challenging situations.”
All applicants have to submit a valid class 2 medical certificate, a type of certificate required for a private pilot licence. But those who pass the battery of psychological tests will also have to subject themselves to an extensive medical examination complete with a series of MRI scans to prove they are not only fit to fly to space but likely to be capable of doing so repeatedly over a period of up to thirty years. Age, though, is not such an issue as it may have been in the earlier era of space exploration, and applicants up to 50 years of age will be considered, De Winne adds.
“Astronaut training is long and expensive, and we want to make sure that each astronaut we recruit will be able to do at least two missions,” explains De Winne, who was in his late 30s when recruited. “Therefore, we need to select people who are likely to stay healthy for a long time. You can go to space as a spaceflight participant with many medical conditions, that’s not the problem. The problem is staying healthy for a long time and in spite of the challenges in the space environment.”
‘The space station has become so big and there is such a big variety of tasks that we need to focus on skills training, to teach the astronauts how to perform the task rather than to learn the knowledge behind it.’
Humans did not evolve to live in space, says Ngo-Anh, and the natural wear and tear on the human body accelerates greatly in the absence of gravity and the presence of cosmic radiation. Not even two hours of rigorous physical exercise stave off the significant bone and muscle loss that quickly occurs in space.
“Space is a hostile environment for humans,” Ngo-Anh says. “It requires dramatic body adaptations. After six months in space astronauts regularly report vision changes, their bone density is reduced by the equivalent of ten years on Earth and their physical work capacity is reduced on average by 40 per cent.”
The good news is that under careful scientific supervision, astronauts’ bodies do return to normal within a few years, including their bone density.
Space life science teams are still studying the effects of space on the human body using the astronauts as guinea pigs. As part of the current intake of astronauts, ESA plans to explore the possibility of flying people with certain physical limitations such as short stature or lower leg problems.
De Winne says that since his days as a trainee astronaut, a lot has changed.
“When I joined ESA, the training was very much theory-based,” De Winne recalls. “But that wouldn’t work today. The space station has become so big and there is such a big variety of tasks that we need to focus on skills training, to teach the astronauts how to perform the task rather than to learn the knowledge behind it.”
Life-sized mock-ups, robotic simulators, and software programmes have replaced PowerPoint presentations. A giant swimming pool simulates the weightless environment. The astronauts, fully attired, conduct mock spacewalks, attending to mock space hardware that is made neutrally buoyant in water (neither sinking nor floating) with weights and floating devices.
The training, De Winne says is as close to reality as one can get on the ground and continues once the astronaut reaches the space station.
“We are moving more and more into video support and on-board training for astronauts in orbit,” says De Winne. “If we were to train the astronaut for every single task that he or she would have to carry out, the ground-based training would take five years.”
During the basic 12-month training, the astronaut trainees also spend a few weeks in a cave system on the Italian island of Sardinia learning how to cope with isolation or exploring simulated Martian rocks on the Spanish island of Lanzarote.
“For me, personally, the most challenging part of the training was learning the Russian language,” De Winne says. “As an engineer and a test pilot, language skills might not be your particular strength. So, learning a new language that you have never spoken before at the age of 40 certainly wasn’t easy.”
De Winne says that the space agencies are currently deciding how much the training methods will have to change ahead of the anticipated lunar landings. In every case, lunar explorers will first have to serve their time at the International Space Station, which will continue to be permanently inhabited at least until 2030.
Sign up to the E&T News e-mail to get great stories like this delivered to your inbox every day.