The dream of becoming an astronaut is both exciting and fascinating. A lingering dream from childhood for many, an unattainable goal for some, and yet the culmination of a complex, multifaceted and exhausting process of selection, training and hard work for only a few.
For the first time in a dozen years, the European Space Agency (ESA) has launched a call for applications from 31 March to 28 May 2021 to recruit the next class of astronauts: only between four and six will be selected.
At the end of these eight weeks, the six stages of the 18-month recruitment process will commence, ending in October 2022, when Europe's next astronauts will be announced.
There are some requirements to be met in order to apply. The first condition is citizenship of one of the 22 ESA member states or an associate member (i.e. Canada, Latvia and Slovenia). Fluency in English is of course essential and knowledge of a second language is considered positively. A Master's degree—or higher—in Natural Sciences, Medicine, Engineering, Mathematics or Computer Science is also required.
One crucial factor to be considered a suitable candidate is to be in good health, both physically and psychologically. According to an ESA publication, "an applicant should be able to pass a JAR-FCL 3, Class 2 medical examination, conducted by an Aviation Medical Examiner certified by his/her national Aviation Medical Authority; must be free from any disease; must be free from any dependency on drugs, alcohol or tobacco; must have visual acuity in both eyes of 100% (20/20) either uncorrected or corrected with lenses or contact lenses; must be free from any psychiatric disorders".
The agency will run an initial screening, a series of psychological, practical and psychometric tests, a medical selection and two rounds of interviews leading up to the announcement of the new astronauts in October 2022
The ESA website posted the guidelines for the selection process, which will be split into several stages shortly after the application deadline expires in May 2021: in order, these stages will entail an initial screening, a series of psychological, practical and psychometric tests, a medical selection and two rounds of interviews, all leading up to the announcement of the new astronauts in October 2022.
Immediately after recruitment, astronaut candidates will undergo training, which is in turn structured in three phases: basic training, advanced training and mission-specific training.
Basic training lasts one year and is held at the European Astronaut Centre: it begins with information on ESA and other space agencies and their main space programmes. The recruits then study the basics of space engineering, electrical engineering and the different science disciplines. They then move on to major ISS systems and transportation systems such as the Shuttle and Soyuz. Basic training concludes by focusing on specific topics such as underwater diving (as the basis for EVA training), robotics, rendezvous and docking, the Russian language, human behaviour and performance training.
This year's selection will draw on ESA's new Parastronaut Feasibility Project to recruit an astronaut with a certain degree of disability for the first time ever
Advance training also lasts one year, though the actual duration varies depending on the ESA location. During the training, international astronauts from all ISS partners are given the knowledge and in-depth technical skills to operate, service and maintain ISS modules, systems, payloads and transport vehicles. Training at this stage becomes more detailed and provides the necessary expertise that future crew members would need for virtually any flight to the ISS. This phase also includes specialisation in certain functions such as resource and data management operations, robotics, navigation, maintenance, medical aspects and experimental installations.
The final stage is referred to as increment-specific training, which serves to prepare assigned and backup crews the knowledge and technical skills required for their specific mission. Training together for roughly two years fosters team integration and spirit.
A truly remarkable aspect of this year's selection is that for the first time ever, an astronaut with a certain degree of disability will be recruited within ESA's new Parastronaut Feasibility Project".
Zero-gravity flights with people with disabilities have already been organised in the past. The goal now is to find a candidate who can perform all the required tasks, despite any disability. The ESA guidelines in the call for applicants mentioned that the International Paralympic Committee provided recommendations and guidance for the selection criteria.