Space, Spaceflight, UK Space Industry

So you want to be an astronaut: Europe Edition!

ESA opens Astronaut Applications

Earlier this month, ESA (the European Space Agency… thankfully the UK remains a part of ESA despite Brexit!) announced they would be opening astronaut applications for the first time since 2008! Although I can’t apply, this is still incredibly exciting- so I immediately signed up to attend the press conference… and I was approved! It was a really cool experience- I even got to ask 2 of my questions to the panel of ESA staff (including Jan Worner, ESA Director General!) and astronauts Tim Peake and Samantha Cristoforetti! Time to share what I learnt:

Who are they looking for?

They are looking for well rounded individuals who have a Master’s degree and 3 years of postgraduate experience in a STEM field, such as Natural Sciences, Medicine, Computer Science, Engineering and Maths. Like many astronaut programs, ESA is moving away from the military route into the astronaut corps, but an experimental test pilot degree remains acceptable as the skills taught in it are still desirable for an astronaut. You have to be fluent in English, and having ‘knowledge of’ additional languages is an asset, for example Russian, which is taught during basic astronaut training as is required to launch in a Soyuz vehicle and communicate with the russian cosmonauts, so it’s useful to have some background knowledge of it… but it could be any language! ESA defines ‘knowledge of’ as reaching a minimum of level B1-2 in the CEFR framework, which equates to a high GCSE grade or above. Applicants also have to be able to cope with the demands of being an astronaut, for example relocating, being away from your family, participating in experiments and being able to stay calm under pressure

This time, they will be selecting astronaut’s in 3 categories: career astronauts, reserve astronauts, and candidates with physical disabilities to participate in the parastronaut feasibility project. 

Career Astronauts are employed by ESA as permanent astronauts, like Tim Peake, and will take part in the more complex, long duration missions. They are likely to be commanders of missions, and will work at ESA in between missions.

Class of 2009: (L-R) Andreas Mogensen, Alexander Gerst, Samantha Cristoforetti, Thomas Pesquet, Luca Parmitano, Tim Peake.

Reserve Astronauts aren’t employed by ESA (so remain in their original job) until they are selected for a specific project/mission. These will be shorter duration, and more likely to be part of a commercial opportunity. At this point they will be recruited on a temporary contract of roughly 4 years to train and take part in the mission. From what I understand, these are likely to be a one-time flight.

Parastronauts: For the first time, ESA will be selecting candidates with a physical disability, in order to conduct a feasibility study to see how they can adapt current technologies to allow space to become a more inclusive space. ESA has worked with the paralympic committee to devise categories of disability for which spaceflight could be feasibly and safely be achieved through adaptation of current technology. This time, people with a lower limb deficiency from the knee down (due to amputation or congenital disability), those with one leg significantly shorter than the other, and people shorter than 130cm can apply.

Obviously this is still a very small proportion of the disabled population, and spaceflight has a long way to go before it becomes fully inclusive, but it is a start. As ESA says, this is just Step 1. A very good point was raised in the press conference, where one of the panel members (I think it was Samantha Cristoforetti) said that in space, everyone is physically impaired as our bodies aren’t made for the microgravity environment, so we rely on technology to adapt the environment to make space accessible, thus there is no reason that these adaptations can’t be expanded to make space accessible to disabled people. It has even been pointed out that disabled people might be more suited to spaceflight, as they have to cope in environments not built for them, are used to moving in ways that don’t require walking, and there are lots of other reasons to that deserve a whole blog post, not just a line, so look out for that soon! Find out more from the ESA website.

It’s expected that 4-6 career astronauts will be selected, up to 20 reserve astronauts and at least one parastronaut for the study. 

How does the selection process work?

Applications can be made between March 31st and May 28th, by creating a profile on the ESA careers webpage and filling in the form/questionnaire. You will also have to upload your CV, a motivation letter, a copy of your passport and a class 2 medical certificate confirming you meet the medical criteria.  From May, there will be several rounds of screening and testing to assess the candidates cognitive, physical, technical and psychological capabilities. Those who make it through every round will then undergo 2 rounds of interviews, before the final candidates are announced! They are expecting huge numbers of people to apply, so only 11% will make it through the initial application phase- so don’t be disheartened if you don’t get through- you are up against the bravest and the brightest in the whole of Europe, not just the UK. 

What will the selected astronauts do?

The selected cohort will undergo 3 phases of training

  • Basic Training at the European Astronaut Centre in Köln, Germany
    • 1 year
    • General Astronaut/Survival/Space/Engineering skills 
    • Russian language
  • Pre Assignment Training 
    • Spacewalks and Robotics training
    • Medical training
    • Payload training
    • Assist with support ops
  • Increment Training
    • 2 years before flight
    • Prepare for mission
    • Practise your tasks and experiments you will do on the mission

Astronauts also participate in analogue missions such as CAVES & NEEMO, and geological field training in sites across Europe in the PANGAEA course.

The Pangaea course takes astronaut candidates to the most extreme locations in Europe, analogue sites for the moon and mars!

ESA astronauts train to fly on any launch vehicle, as a) ESA doesn’t have their own, but use those of other agencies (eg. Soyuz, shuttle in past, SLS/Orion in future) and those commercially available SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, and soon Boeing’s Starliner). In the future, they will fly in the Orion spacecraft, which is a collaboration between ESA and NASA, with ESA building the service module. Frank de Winne said “For us it’s not so important on which vehicle our astronauts fly, as the work that we do is on the ISS- the six months that they are there and they do the research and the technology advancement. Which bus you take to go there is of less importance”. He also said that having astronauts with experience in different vehicles is useful. 

It’s expected that this cohort of astronauts will qualify before the ISS comes to the end of its lifetime, but the era of the international space station is coming to an end, with decisions being made over the next few years on what will come after its decommissioned in 2030. ESA is already starting to build a Low Earth Orbit (LEO) economy with “commercial providers, not only for transportation, but also for infrastructure of modules of research facilities that the government agencies can be customers of”. This LEO economy won’t consist of one major station, but “several space stations operated by different entities” each with different facilities and purposes. 

However, the ISS will remain a valuable resource for the next decade, and this will be “the richest time”, benefitting from the investment and knowledge gained since its creation 20 years ago, and we can now have 7 crew members aboard at once!

ESA is also looking to collaborate with the lesser known, but fast growing space agencies such as the Chinese Space Agency, which has already begun with Samantha Cristoforetti starting to train with them. The global nature of space exploration is why having a second language is so beneficial.

Astronauts will still take part in large international collaborations, but it’s likely that these will be beyond LEO, for example with the Lunar Gateway and Artemis programs. ESA is already contributing 2 modules to the Lunar Gateway (a habitation module ‘I-Hab’ and a general infrastructure module ‘ESPIRIT’), and there is no doubt European astronauts will be visiting  in a similar way to visiting the ISS at the moment! The main purpose of the Lunar Gateway is to act as, well… a gateway, to the Moon and Mars: these astronauts will probably be amongst the first to return to the moon, and perhaps even visit Mars for the first time! 

Great, how can I apply?

You can find all the details on the ESA website, read the FAQs or watch the press conference- skip to 50min to see me ask my questions! My questions were answered by Frank de Winne, ex ESA astronaut and Head of the EAC, but he was joined by:

  • Jan Wörner, ESA Director General
  • Samantha Cristoforetti, ESA astronaut
  • Tim Peake, ESA astronaut
  • David Parker, ESA Director of Human and Robotic Exploration
  • Frank De Winne, ESA Low Earth Orbit Exploration Group Leader, Head of the European Astronaut Centre
  • Jennifer Ngo-Anh, ESA Research and Payloads Programme Coordinator, Human and Robotic Exploration
  • Lucy van der Tas, ESA Head of Talent Acquisition
Still can’t believe this is a real screenshot- little old me with giants like Samantha Cristoforetti, Tim Peake and Jan Worner… such a cool experience!!

Applications open on March 31st, you can keep up to date here.


3 thoughts on “So you want to be an astronaut: Europe Edition!”

  1. I wish I was old enough to apply haha
    Hopefully they’ll have applications open once I’m old enough
    Congratulations on getting to talk with them!! That’s so amazing!!


    1. Same! The space industry is definitely growing rapidly, so I’m sure there will be plenty of opportunities in the future. I would suggest looking at what they are requiring at the moment, and start thinking about what you can do so that you are more likely to meet the requirements when they re-open!


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