Situations vacant: applicants should be fit, fearless
Wanted for unique opportunity: brilliant, physically fit people. Must be cool under pressure, willing to work away from home and have a good head for heights. Free uniform included.
The wording might be a little different, but when the advert appears in newspapers in the next few weeks, it will mark the beginning of one of the most exciting recruitment drives in more than 40 years. The European Astronaut Centre (EAC) needs more astronauts, and from them it expects to choose the first European to walk on the moon.
The EAC, part of the European Space Agency (ESA), last went looking for astronauts 15 years ago. The recruitment comes at a time of enormous change in human space exploration. The space shuttle, until now a workhorse for transporting crews to and from the International Space Station, is due to be mothballed in 2010 or shortly after. And the lifetime of the space station itself is only guaranteed until 2015.
But the plans for humans in space suggest a new era is about to begin. Next year, Nasa plans the first test flight of its shuttle replacement, the Orion module, with which it intends to return astronauts to the moon by 2020. The ESA hopes to be there with them.
“The average age of our astronaut corps is 50 years old, and with that corps, we cannot master the challenges of the future,” said Gerhard Thiele, head of the astronaut division at the EAC in Cologne. “I’d not be surprised if one of the candidates we select this time round will be among the first Europeans to walk on the moon.”
Thiele, a former astronaut, is looking for four new astronauts plus four back-ups. Applications will be taken via a website, and will be followed by a year-long selection process of interviews, medicals and psychological tests. Up to 50 000 applications are expected.
“People have to be operationally very skilled and must be able to stay cool if things get tense. But what is important to me is that the person is a team player, a servant. They might seem a hero type with the ‘right stuff’, but they have to understand they are just one small part in the entire scenario. We need people who understand what it means to be humble,” said Thiele.
Astronauts traditionally come from strong technical backgrounds, so scientists, engineers and doctors will be high on the list. Piloting skills—though not needed as Europeans are not allowed to fly the shuttle or the Russian Soyuz—are also desirable. The agency has a policy of not recruiting people older than 55, but the physical fitness required to make it through selection usually weeds out plenty of people who are much younger.
For Britons, getting into the astronaut corps is made all the harder by the government’s opposition to human spaceflight. While Britain is the fourth largest contributor to ESA, paying â,¬265-million (Â£208-million) this year alone, none of that goes towards the astronaut programme.
“To the best of my knowledge, there has never been an ESA astronaut from a country that wasn’t supporting human space flight, but this should change in the future,” said Thiele. “From the number of letters I get, I’d say almost half the applications will be coming from Great Britain and I can assure every British candidate we are absolutely blind to the colour of the passport during the application process.”
At Britain’s Empire Test Pilots’ School at RAF Boscombe Down, Wiltshire, a spokesperson said a shift in the government’s position would quickly get people talking. “Anyone in flight test probably has, deep in their soul somewhere, an ambition that it would be a great thing to do, and historically test flying is where astronauts have been recruited.
“It’s not really been a topic of conversation in this country because it’s not been seen as a possibility. If things changed, we would be very surprised if it didn’t become a very hot topic of conversation indeed,” he said.
The government recently published its space strategy for the next five years, and announced that it would review its position on human space flight. - guardian.co.uk Â