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Want to be an astronaut? ESA recruitment is taking off

16 Feb 2021672 Views

The European Space Agency is looking for new astronauts for the first time in more than a decade – and it hopes to find its most diverse crew yet.

The last time the European Space Agency (ESA) opened a call for new astronauts, it was 2008. It received almost 10,000 applications.

Now, for the first time in more than 10 years, the agency is actively recruiting again and it wants to make spaceflight more inclusive.

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In a press briefing earlier today (16 February), ESA director general Jan Wörner said that finding new astronauts is a priority for the sake of continuity and the “smooth transfer of a special kind of knowledge”.

To achieve this, there are two types of astronauts the ESA will be recruiting. The first, called career astronauts, will become ESA staff. They will travel on long-duration missions, often holding a commanding position. At least four, but potentially as many as six, career astronauts will be recruited in this call.

In an entirely new initiative, reserve astronauts will also be taken on. These will occupy a more flexible position. They won’t be ESA staff, but will be linked to a specific flight or mission and may be hired by the ESA for a temporary four-year contract. ESA will be looking for up to 20 reserve astronauts, and applications are welcome from any ESA member state or associated state.

Frank de Winne, head of the European Astronaut Centre, said that career astronauts in particular will be taking part in programmes that will bring them “further from Earth than anyone has ever been”. While the current focus is on the International Space Station and returning to the moon, future missions will involve Mars and the Gateway, which is a small space station that will orbit the moon.

Committing to greater diversity

David Parker, ESA director of human and robotic exploration, spoke about the agency’s plans for more diverse and inclusive space missions.

Until now, he said, the focus has been on bringing together people from different cultures across Europe. But now the ESA is promising to pay greater attention to different genders, beliefs, ages and more. Women, in particular, are being encouraged to apply for the call.

For the first time in its history, the ESA is also exploring how to bring people with physical disabilities into space in a new ‘parastronaut’ programme. This feasibility project will offer “professional spaceflight opportunities to a wider pool of talents”, the agency said, and determine the potential challenges around safety and operations in space. Parker emphasised that the agency is currently at “step zero” of this parastronaut journey, but that it is working towards “step one”.

Who is the ESA looking for?

In terms of qualifications, the ESA is looking for people with at least a master’s degree in a relevant area, including natural sciences, computer science, engineering, medicine and maths. Postgraduate experience is also essential, which can include working in a lab, in a hospital or carrying out research in the field.

But due to the demanding nature of the career, the ESA highlighted some other important characteristics it’ll be looking out for. Astronauts have to carry out intense training, it said, such as microgravity certifications and preparing for spaceflight in unusual ways.

So, ESA is looking for individuals who can stay calm under pressure, are highly motivated and who can cope with irregular working hours and frequent travel for long periods of time.

Jennifer Ngo-Anh, another member of the agency’s human and robotic exploration department, noted that “humans have not evolved for life in orbit” and that space can be “quite a hostile environment”.

Through her research, Ngo-Anh’s goal is to make humans a “space-faring species”, which involves rigorous experimentation that requires astronauts to act as test subjects. A successful astronaut also needs excellent fine motor skills, the capacity to rapidly absorb very complex information and make tough decisions, she added.

“Astronauts are also some of the most visible ambassadors of the space programme, so they need to engage wide audiences – especially the younger generation – before, during and after a mission,” she said.

Applying to be an astronaut

The ESA’s 2021 call for astronauts opens on 31 March and closes on 28 May. Candidates will need to apply through the ESA careers site, where they’ll be asked to upload a CV, motivation letter, a copy of their passport and other documents.

The hiring process will last for around 18 months, depending on how the pandemic progresses. Lucy van der Tas, head of talent acquisition at ESA, said her team is expecting to receive a very high number of applications and asked that those interested be patient. “If you don’t make it through, please don’t be discouraged,” she added. “The process is highly selective and we’re looking for very specific people.”

She also recommended checking out the ESA careers site for other jobs available at the agency, as there are plenty of opportunities besides astronaut positions.

Astronaut Tim Peake, who was present at the briefing, added that he is “incredibly excited for anyone applying”.

“We are pushing the boundaries – asking more of our engineers, scientists and astronauts. It is a long journey, but it’s an incredibly exciting and life-changing one.”

Editor’s note, 21 May 2021: The ESA has now extended the deadline for applications to 18 June 2021. You can find out more here.

Lisa Ardill
By Lisa Ardill

Lisa Ardill joined Silicon Republic as senior careers reporter in July 2019. She has a BA in neuroscience and a master’s degree in science communication. She is also a semi-published poet and a big fan of doggos. Lisa briefly served as Careers Editor at Silicon Republic before leaving the company in June 2021.

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