The European Space Agency (ESA) announced on Tuesday a call, the first in eleven years, to recruit about twenty new members for its astronaut corps. As part of a novel initiative, one or two places will be reserved for people with some type of physical disability. These “parastronauts”, as they have been called, will be part of ESA’s reserve group and, if the right conditions occur, will fly to the International Space Station (ISS) in the future “on a safe and useful mission”. As they have warned from the agency, “no one has done this before and we have to make sure that everything goes well.
For the first time in history, ESA is launching a project (Parastronaut feasibility project) so that among its astronauts there are people with a physical disability that would normally prevent them from being selected due to the requirements imposed by the use of current space hardware. “At the moment, we are contemplating the lack of one or two feet, one or two legs, a difference in length between the two legs or a short stature (less than 130 cm)”, explains Sergi Vaquer, an aerospace doctor at ESA. To make this selection, the agency has had the help of the International Paralympic Committee. The objective, as they have explained, is to bet on diversity and inclusion, and to know the challenges that these people may encounter when working or living in space. “It is a pioneering project and a great challenge,” said Rosario Martin-Sanchez, head of the Social Security and Related Policies Unit at ESA.
At first, the part astronauts will be in the reserve with the aim that in the future they can carry out a mission in low Earth orbit, such as those carried out on the orbital platform. “We do not have our space vehicles and we must convince other agencies to adopt them so that these astronauts can participate in missions safely”, Vaquer emphasizes. In this sense, the Italian Samantha Cristoforetti, the only active ESA female astronaut, recalled that “we are all disabled in space. Technology is what allows us to be there and we have to adapt it to all kinds of people. All candidates without distinction, including future “parastronauts”, must be European citizens with a degree and three years of experience in areas such as natural sciences, medicine, engineering, mathematics, or computer science, or be experienced pilots. Additionally, fluent English is required and other languages are valued. Regarding their personality, they must be “strongly motivated and able to deal with irregular work hours, frequent trips and long absences from home, family and normal social life.
Similarly, it is essential to keep a cool head and be able to “stay calm under pressure.” Without restrictions on gender – they have made a special appeal to women -, beliefs or ethnicity, there is an age limit, 50 years, to guarantee that astronauts can go to space twice. The deadline for aspiring both astronauts and per astronauts will be open from March 31 to May 28. The agency will only take into account applications sent through the ESA employment website, which must be accompanied by a motivation letter and a medical certificate similar to that required by a private pilot. Then the selection process will begin, which will consist of six phases: psychological tests, psychometric and practical tests, medical selection, and two rounds of interviews. In principle, the process will end in October 2022.
Those chosen will receive intensive training for one year at the European Astronaut Center in Cologne (Germany) that includes knowledge of space vehicles, fundamentals of engineering and science, survival skills, and Russian. Then, in different locations and for a time that can last several years, they will train in medical practices, navigation, spacewalks until they are assigned a mission for whose experiments or objectives will require specific skills.In addition to participating in missions to the space station, these future astronauts may be selected for the Gateway module in the orbit of the Moon (there is a three-flight agreement with NASA) and even to fulfill the dream of stepping on the surface of our planet.
The German astronaut Matthias Maurer has encouraged all those who want to show up and are afraid of not being good enough. The most difficult thing is to pass the application barrier. That is what you have to do very well. If you love it from the heart you will be successful, but you must be very sure, “he warned. Especially since the competition is going to be tough. In the previous call, in 2008, 8,500 candidates were presented. “Being an astronaut is what I have sought all my life and I have achieved it,” said Cristoforetti-, but whether one is selected or not, it is a great opportunity to know your strengths, your weaknesses and help you grow. Guillermo Rojo, a high-performance 400-meter athlete from Madrid, has worked at the European Space Agency (ESA) center in Cologne as a physical trainer for astronauts. Now you want to be one of them, so you will submit your application in the new ESA call. I’ve always wanted to be an astronaut. There is nothing that motivates me more than the idea of being the representative of the human species in the exploration of other worlds, of going beyond the door of our house and perhaps answering the question of whether we are alone ”, he explains.
Rojo, 29, does not have a career in science or engineering but is confident in his closeness to the agency and his knowledge of preparing for space missions. Currently, he supervises the physical preparation of participants in tough simulations of stays on Mars, such as Amadee 20, organized by the Austrian Space Forum (OeWF) and the Israeli Space Agency (ISA). I know the environment of ESA very well and I have a very rational mentality. I don’t stake my life, but I also know what it’s like to work hard and be under pressure as a high-performance athlete, ”he says. Besides, he believes that it is very possible that there is a Spaniard on the list and, although he throws stones at his roof, he would consider it “fabulous” that they chose a Spanish woman.