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Why the next generation of astronaut will be female, older and even disabled

The Telegraph logo The Telegraph 10/02/2021 Sarah Rodrigues
Samantha Cristoforetti talking on a cell phone: Astronauts wanted: European Space Agency Italian astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti takes part in a preflight training session at the Gagarin Cosmonauts' Training Centre in Star City centre outside Moscow - AFP/Getty Images © AFP/Getty Images Astronauts wanted: European Space Agency Italian astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti takes part in a preflight training session at the Gagarin Cosmonauts' Training Centre in Star City centre outside Moscow - AFP/Getty Images

For the first time in 11 years the European Space Agency (ESA) is looking to recruit new astronauts, in a process that will begin on 31 March.

“ESA is strongly encouraging women to apply, because we are seeking to expand gender diversity in our ranks,” says the agency’s official statement, which urges hopefuls to submit their applications within an eight-week window, prior to a six-stage selection process due to be completed in October 2022.

The last time that ESA recruited was in 2008/9. This is when Tim Peake was one of six astronauts selected; only one woman – Samantha Cristoforetti, from Italy - formed one of this six.

Yet, says Libby Jackson, Human Exploration Programme Manager at the UK Space Agency (UKSA), this 16.66 per cent did actually reflect the number of females in the 8,413 people who applied. “It was not an artefact of the selection process, but of the initial applications,” she says, “and that’s something that we are seeing and challenging and fighting for all the time in the space sector – and of course, in everything.”

The diversity that underpins contemporary space sector recruitment goes beyond the question of gender, however.

“Whenever I talk to young people, and whenever young people have the opportunity to speak with Tim, one of their primary questions is ‘what does it take to be an astronaut?’” says Jackson. “And the answer is that astronauts come from all sorts of different backgrounds. Yes, usually there is a technical and scientific requirement, but there are also so many other necessary skills that you simply can’t take exams in. After all,” she points out, “no one takes a degree in ‘being an astronaut’.”

Take Helen Sharman, for example. She was driving home from her job as a chemist (and taster) at confectionery producer Mars, when she heard an advertisement on the radio: “Astronaut wanted: no experience necessary.”

Helen Sharman wearing a costume: Helen Sharman: the first Briton to go into space, Sharman was selected for the mission by Project Juno, a private British space programme, out of 13,000 applicants - Science Photo Library © Provided by The Telegraph Helen Sharman: the first Briton to go into space, Sharman was selected for the mission by Project Juno, a private British space programme, out of 13,000 applicants - Science Photo Library

From 13,000 applicants - of whom the expectation was that they should have some kind of technical qualification and hands-on experience, as well as being in good health - she was ultimately chosen, becoming the first British person (and the first western woman) in space. Another prerequisite for the successful applicant was that they would need to learn Russian.

Thirty years after Sharman boarded the Soyuz TM-12 mission to the Mir Space Station, is a second language still necessary?

“The world of space travel is international,” says Jackson, “and the current destination for astronauts is the International Space Station, for which the working language is both English and Russian. By the time you go into space, you need to be conversant in both of those languages, in case there is an emergency.”

If past recruitment is anything to go by, the ESA selection process will involve rigorous psychological, medical and professional screening.

Gallery: Fearless female space explorers (USA Today)

“Any astronaut selection is looking for people who can remain calm under pressure and who are good team players,” says Jackson. “They’ll need to understand the risks of sitting on top of a rocket that’s going to take you into a very dangerous place where you’ve only got a spacecraft that’s protecting you from the vacuum, and it’s plus 200C in the sun and minus 200C in the shade. The tests are designed to find the people who can cope with those kinds of psychological pressures.”

Although the requirements for the next round of applicants won’t be known until the recruitment process begins, other insights may be gained from the last round: as well as the aforementioned screenings, candidates are ideally competent in “relevant scientific disciplines, such as life sciences, physics, chemistry and medicine” or are “an engineer or experimental test pilot.” They should have “demonstrated outstanding abilities in research, applications or the educational field, preferably including operational skills.” Furthermore, “a good memory and reasoning ability, concentration, aptitude for spatial orientation and manual dexterity are also prerequisites,” as well as “high motivation, flexibility, team competence, empathy with others and emotional stability.”

Beth Moses, Chief Astronaut Trainer at Virgin Galactic, undertakes spaceflight training with those members of the public who have bought £175,000 tickets for a 90-minute flight (once the programme gets underway).  Naturally as passengers, these "Future Astronauts" need far fewer skills - they won't be in control of anything -  but Moses explains that training ensures they understand exactly what to expect in flight: inertial forces, sounds, motion, cabin dynamics, human interfaces, communication, and, she says,  "the view!"

a woman wearing glasses and smiling at the camera: "Upper body strength is useful": Beth Moses, Chief Astronaut Instructor at Virgin Galactic © Provided by The Telegraph "Upper body strength is useful": Beth Moses, Chief Astronaut Instructor at Virgin Galactic

Does Moses, who has been to space herself, have any tips for anyone interested in being an astronaut? "I recommend increasing upper body flexibility, shoulder strength, and shoulder rotation.

"We want to make sure our Future Astronauts are excited, rested, hydrated, proficient with their gear, and acutely aware of the exact sensory experiences they are about to have."

Getting back to that thorny diversity issue though: how well represented are women, in the field of space exploration generally?

“Recent selections from many different agencies, including NASA and the Canadian Space Agency have been 50:50 gender balanced,” says Jackson. “We are beginning to see more diverse selection – and it's important that we encourage everybody who wants to apply to feel empowered to do so, and that we encourage young women to see that science and technology, if that’s what interests them, can be subjects for them.”

Although I’m trying to think back to the sorts of issues that may have niggled me as a 15-year-old at a Careers Day event, Jackson seems appalled by my question about whether being in space affects menstrual cycles, asking me whether a man would ever be asked a question like that. She concedes, however, that for people who don’t fit the ‘conventional mould’ for certain roles, that it’s important for them to be able to see people like themselves in those roles.

Take, for instance, Sally Ride – the first American female astronaut. In a 2018 tweet, @NASAhistory quotes her saying “The engineers at NASA, in their infinite wisdom, decided that women astronauts would want makeup - so they designed a makeup kit.”

a close up of a toy: LEGO Women of NASA: In 2017, LEGO released this commemorative set which features Sally Ride, the first American female astronaut, and Mae Jemison, the first black woman to travel in space © Provided by The Telegraph LEGO Women of NASA: In 2017, LEGO released this commemorative set which features Sally Ride, the first American female astronaut, and Mae Jemison, the first black woman to travel in space

“Ride was constantly asked about how she was going to manage her hair and makeup in space,” says Jackson. “People seemed to care more about that than they did about how qualified she was. Were they asking her male counterparts these kinds of questions? She wanted to be seen as an astronaut, not as a female astronaut. Ultimately, however, she could see how much it meant to young females all over the world, for them to be able to see someone who was like them, doing something that, previously, they may not have imagined was within their realm of possibility. It’s one of the reasons why the election of Kamala Harris is so significant.”

The hope is that ESA’s latest recruitment drive will push diversity even further. "Representing all parts of our society is a concern that we take very seriously,” says David Parker, ESA Director of Human and Robotic Exploration. “Diversity at ESA should not only address the origin, age, background or gender of our astronauts, but also perhaps physical disabilities. To make this dream a reality, alongside the astronaut recruitment I am launching the Parastronaut Feasibility Project – an innovation whose time has come."

But how feasible is diversity, in its broadest form, in space? Where age is concerned, says Jackson, most astronauts are recruited in their late 20s to early 30s, and go on to have careers that last 30 or so years. “I would not want to speculate about what might be outlined in ESA’s call,” she says. “Rather than saying, ‘what’s the oldest you can be to go into space?’ it might be more useful to ask the age of the oldest person to have gone into space – and that’s ex-Senator John Glenn who, in 1962, having been the first American to orbit the earth became, at the age of 77, the oldest person to ever fly in space.”

She points out, however, that the opportunities for getting involved in the space industry are almost as infinite as space itself.

“Astronauts are very visible, of course,” she acknowledges. “But it’s so important to promote the message that for anyone who has ever been interested in space, you don't have to wait for these rare recruitment calls to come around. There is a space sector here in the UK that employs 40,000 people, and it's growing all the time. You can be a scientist, you can be an engineer, you can be a journalist, a communications professional; we’ve got secretaries, we’ve got finance people, lawyers – it’s a complete sector. And if space is something that interests you, there will be a way to combine your skills with that sector.”

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