Nobody said it was easy. Not fast. Put on the astronaut suit European Space Agency (ESA) and cherish the dream of traveling to space requires facing a demanding career and suitable only for candidates with nerves—and patience—of steel. After half a year of screening, a long period that the international organization itself attributes “to the large volume and caliber of applications”, ESA already has the first list of pre-selected to join its template of cosmonauts.
They are, altogether, 1,391 lucky: 1,362 for the general category of astronaut and 29 for the disabled. They may seem like a lot, but they are not even 6% of the 23,594 people who had submitted their application throughout the first half of 2021.
The announcement has been made by the ESA itself, which acknowledges that it has “taken some time to review and respond to all the requests” and emphasizes the hardness of the race to wear the agency patch. “Is a very competitive process, even meeting the initial criteria to apply is something to be proud of,” emphasizes Antonella CostaESA’s HR business partner.
Actually the process is more than competitive. is also exceptional. The “train” to become an ESA astronaut happens very rarely. Since 1977, the agency had launched only three calls. The former dated in fact from a decade ago, 2009, when he signed half a dozen of the 10,000 candidates he had shortlisted.
Not for the impatient
How are things after that initial sieve? Of the 23,307 people who had opted for the general category, 1,362 received the OK from the agency —61% men and the remaining 39% women—; and of the 287 who applied for the program aimed at astronauts with some type of disability, 29 have succeeded, of which 72.4% are men and 27.6% women.
Although the first selection has already left out just over 90% of the initial applicants, the selection still has several stages left in which the ESA does not expect to slow down. Not much less. His plans go through that at the end of the process, scheduled for this year, there are only four to six astronauts left. The announcement of those selected to join the ranks of the European Space Agency and those who will join the reserve list will take place in the fall.
What will happen until then?
From the outset, the 1,391 preselected must now face the first test round, during which they will have to demonstrate —details the agency itself– his “psychological performance” through cognitive, technical, motor coordination and personality tests. The agency assures that it has already begun to summon those selected for “a full day of tests.”
Those who overcome them will still have a long way to go with four other crucial “stops”: first they will undergo an evaluation with psychometric tests, individual and group exercises and other practical exercises; then their physical and psychological state will be evaluated, paying special attention to long-term missions. In the penultimate phase, they will be subjected to a group interview that will measure their technical and behavioral skills and, finally, as a final touch, they must maintain a meeting with the Director General of ESA itself.
The process is the same for all vacancies. The only peculiarity in the case of those applicants with some type of physical disability is that they must undergo a medical exam in the first phase and a specific review in the fourth phase, almost at the end of the process.
The ESA tests do not mark in any case the start of the race. As the high percentage of excluded shows, just sneaking in among the shortlisted is already an achievement. For starters, they must meet a long list of requirements, such as being physically fit, measure between 1.5 and 1.9 meters and not be overweight, have a hearing capacity of at least 25 dB per ear and visual acuity, not having reached the age of fifty at the time of application and “be medically fit to perform the duties of a private pilot”.
That to start. They must know how to swim, have a driver’s license, be willing to spend up to eight hours a day underwater, exercising while in wetsuits, undergo parabolic flight tests designed to simulate microgravity conditions, and have a good teamwork skills and management of stress situations.
In the case of applicants Parastronaut Fly, which seeks to investigate the feasibility of send physically disabled astronauts into space and finding innovative ways to approach travel, candidates must be psychologically, cognitively and professionally qualified.
In the campaign dossier, the agency specifies the deficiencies of the lower extremities of the body or of height that are contemplated, but emphasizes that any applicant must be able to read with “minimal visual aid”, enjoy good motor skills and the execution of manual tasks and be in a position to move autonomously. To those selected, the agency will offer them a place in the reserve group and they will be part of Parastronaut Fly.
“Your job will involve overcoming barriers, conduct extensive research, adapt existing systems, and possibly develop and build new systems. The project will seek operational and technological solutions so that a person with a disability can carry out space missions, including working as an astronaut on the ISS”, details.
As for knowledge, in 2021 —when the call was officially launched— we already told you about the demanding curriculum required by the European agency. Applicants need at least a master’s degree in Physics, medicine, Computer Engineering or the experimental test degree. Your level of English must be high (CEFR C1) and it is recommended to have an additional language. As for experience, At least three years of professional experience are required.
to older it is crucial that they meet a starting requirement: be a citizen of one of the member countries (Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Spain , Sweden, Switzerland, UK) or associates (Slovenia and Latvia) of ESA. As Lithuania joined the “club” in May 2021, the agency has also accepted requests from its inhabitants.
And once the whole process is finished? Well, very simple: start over. So so.
When the entire selection phase is over and the handful of future astronauts can boast of being part of the ranks of ESA they should start their training process, no less extensive and also divided into several blocks. Basically and to be precise, in three.
During the first stage, “basic training”, which lasts one year and takes place in the European Astronaut Center (EAC), in Cologne, the chosen ones receive, among other lessons, notions of Russian, training to obtain a private pilot’s license and survival techniques. The second focuses on the specific aspects of the International Space Station (ISS), its systems, payloads, transport vehicles… And it already allows “students” perform tasks to support other active astronauts from the ground. The third and last step is already limited to the particular characteristics and needs of the mission that each one has to carry out.
If you are wondering if it is worth so much sacrifice, beyond being one of the privileged few who can enjoy the experience of actively participating in a space mission, ESA has no qualms about specify the working conditions of its astronauts.
Selected candidates—who will join their ranks, not those on reserve lists—are offered a four-year staff contract that can be extended indefinitely. Your position will be in the A2-A4 grade category of the Coordinated Organizations salary scale, with a net monthly base salary of between 5,400 and 8,600 eurosbased on years of experience. As for vacations, it offers six weeks of paid leave per year plus 12 additional holidays. If you are from another country, it guarantees you special facilities.
Those who go to the reserve, about twenty, selected from among the best finalists are not hired as ESA staff members; but they are offered the opportunity to train at the EAC in Germany, where they must stay one week a year. To ensure they remain eligible, the agency requires them to maintain an annual medical certification.
Images | Samantha Cristoforetti and THAT