Jobs listing : Astronaut (ESA)


Creative Writer
From The Sunday Times

May 25, 2008
Astronauts wanted: join the next moon shoot

Are you young and fit with a science degree? Then the moon is only a step away, says Roland White, as the European Space Agency is holding open auditions for astronauts


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If you’re fed up with commuter trains and apologies for the delay, here’s a much more exciting announcement to start the trip to work – five, four, three, two, one, ignition, lift-off.
The European Space Agency (ESA) is launching a recruitment drive to find four astronauts who may one day follow in the footsteps of Eugene Cernan. Oh come on, of course you remember Eugene. He is the stuff of pub-quiz legend because, way back in 1972, he was the last person to walk on the surface of the moon. Now there’s a distinct possibility that you could be next. Provided, of course, that you have the right stuff.
“We are first looking for astronauts to fly to the international space station,” says Horst Schaarschmidt of the ESA, announcing the multi-million-pound venture. “We cannot promise anything, but there is a high probability that one or two of those astronauts might also fly to the moon.”
Any European mission to the moon would be the most nationally diverse space flight since the USS Enterprise boldly went where no man had gone before with its American captain and half-Vulcan first officer, guided by its Russian navigator, Mr Chekov (played by Walter Koenig, a Lithuanian Jew from Chicago), and Scottish engineer (in real life James Doohan, an Irish-Canadian).
The search for the next generation of European space travellers will be conducted across 17 nations, including Finland, Norway, Portugal, Switzerland and, of course, Britain. Only 50 people from a population of nearly 400m will be suitable for the job; 22,000 are expected to apply.
You’d hope the space agency would be choosy about the people it sent to the moon. There is more, after all, to commanding a space mission than saying, “Warp speed, Mr Sulu,” with sufficient authority, and a smattering of Klingon. You might be surprised to discover quite how choosy.
Here’s what the agency will be looking for in the ideal candidate. He or she will be aged between 27 and 37 (although they will stretch the limit by a couple of years for exceptional candidates). He or she will have a master’s degree or PhD in engineering, medicine or the natural sciences. Ideally, they should also have a pilot’s licence. If you’re experienced enough as a pilot, the ESA will shrug its shoulders and make do with a lowly bachelor’s degree. If you have a superior degree, it will train you to fly. How are you doing so far?
Fluency in English is compulsory: it’s the official language of the space centre in Cologne. Fluent Russian is an advantage but the agency will teach you anyway: you’ll need it to talk to Russians in the international space centre.
You should be in good health and, perhaps more important, unlikely to develop medical complications in the next few years. You must be a good leader but also a capable follower – able to take instruction when necessary.
Perhaps the most important qualification – and for some reason the agency has overlooked this – is the ability to live in a confined space for six months with nothing but a Frenchman and a German for company.
What is intriguing is that this is the first time the agency has publicly advertised for astronauts (and I suppose we’re lucky it’s not being organised by Simon Cowell as a hit television series called Blast Off!). The last recruitment drive was a much more modest affair in 1992, when the member countries supplied their own candidates.
The team assembled then – of which two Italians, two Frenchmen, a Belgian, a German, a Dutchman and a Swede remain – are now in their late forties and early fifties. They can still take a giant leap for mankind if called upon but their joints are getting stiff.
You will have noticed that none of the existing astronauts is British. That is because Margaret Thatcher decided in 1986 that Britain could no longer afford to send its best and brightest into outer space but would keep them on the ground, building satellites and space probes.
So when the ESA took over responsibility for putting Europeans into space in the early 1990s, there were fully trained Italians and French astronauts ready for blast-off, but no British candidates.
Until now the only way British astronauts have gone into space is by cheating the system. Helen Sharman, who became perhaps the best-known British space traveller when she went to the Mir space station in 1991, won her place in a competition sponsored by Moscow Narodny Bank. Michael Foale of Nasa had an American mother and British father, and Piers Sellers, also of Nasa, was born in Britain but is a naturalised American.
All of the current team are male and the agency is keen to comply with the European Union’s gender-balance protocols by recruiting female space cadets. “Women are welcome but very few apply,” says Michel Tognini, head of the astronaut corps.
One woman who will be applying is Tracey Dickens, 29, an astrophysicist at Leicester University. She has wanted to be an astronaut since visiting a library as a child and discovering The Newsround Book of Space.
“I have goosebumps whenever anything to do with space comes on the television,” she says. “I keep saying to myself: I’m going to be an astronaut and nothing’s going to stop me. When I said I wanted to apply to university to do astrophysics, my physics teacher didn’t think I was capable. But I didn’t think for a moment about giving up.
“I could never understand why there have never been any more British female [astronauts]. Physics has always been seen as a man’s world, and I think a lot of girls still feel this. I was an exception, I guess.”
She faces stiff competition from Gail Iles, 33, who already works for the space agency as a physicist after getting a PhD in nanotechnology at Leicester. “I have dedicated my entire life to becoming an astronaut by staying fit, studying hard and presenting myself with difficult challenges,” Iles says.
“Performing science in space is a challenge. Not only do you need the equipment to work properly but you depend on yourself to be physically and mentally strong enough to cope in a stressful environment.”
We won’t know the names of the successful candidates until next year, by which time they will have spent a total of three weeks being interviewed, psychologically tested and examined by doctors. Once they’ve been measured for their uniforms, they begin basic training on a net starting salary of roughly £43,600 a year. As soon as they start flying missions – after four or five years of training – that can rise to £70,750 a year after tax.
The latest recruitment drive follows a burst of European activity in space. The ESA’s Columbus space laboratory was delivered to the international space station in February and is ready for work. That was followed by the launch of Jules Verne, the first unmanned cargo ship, which will be used to ferry supplies to the space station.
Conducting experiments in the Columbus laboratory will be the bread-and-butter work of Europe’s new generation of astronauts, but the moon is the big prize. “The astronaut’s career is in the order of 20 years, so the people we recruit now will be with us until 2029,” says Schaarschmidt. “We are all expecting that the space station might be in service for several more years but then there will be a moment when all the space nations will head towards the moon. I am pretty sure that Europe will participate in these missions.”
Is it worth the effort in the end, especially if you don’t make it to the moon? “It’s a lot of commitment to be an astronaut,” Schaarschmidt says. “You really have to be an exceptional candidate, and the training is not easy. You are often separated from your family, and you have to concentrate all the time.
“They handle a lot of sophisticated experiments and electronics and computers, and they have to live in a confined environment with a lot of noise. High mental power is required from the beginning until the end of an astronaut’s career.”
What makes it all worthwhile is just one moment – when you peek from the window of your spacecraft at the cloudy blue sphere below you.
“To be in weightlessness and to fly out to the space station, to see the Earth from space, is a wonderful reward for the astronauts for all the burden they have during training,” Schaarschmidt says. “It is exceptional, really.”
— For your chance to slip the surly bonds of earth, see
Astronauts who boldly went
Astronaut training wasn’t always so rigorous. In November 1957 a stray mongrel ***** from a Moscow street became the first living thing in space. Soviet scientists tested her pulse during take-off (when it rose threefold) and weightlessness. She died from overheating and stress just hours after lift-off in Sputnik 2. American newspapers nicknamed her Muttnik.
Yuri Gagarin
The first man in space was the Soviet test pilot Yuri Gagarin, then 27. He was chosen from 3,000 applicants and in April 1961 made a 108-minute orbit of Earth in his Vostok 1 spacecraft. The flight was automated: Gagarin was not allowed to take control of the ship. After one orbit he returned to earth, landing by parachute in an agricultural area. He became world-famous but was killed in a flying accident in 1968.
Valentina Tereshkova
Two years after Gagarin paved the way, a former textile worker became the first woman in space. Valentina Tereshkova, 26, travelling in Vostok 6, was the fifth Russian cosmonaut. Not content with taking part in the first docking manoeuvre between spacecraft, she completed 23 orbits of the earth – one more than the US record at the time.
Neil Armstrong
Everybody’s favourite spaceman landed on the moon as commander of Apollo 11 in July 1969. That was one small step for a man; one giant leap for mankind, as he didn’t quite say. There were unconfirmed rumblings later that Buzz Aldrin, the second moonwalker, should have been down the ladder first.
Eugene Cernan
The most recent man on the moon left a small plaque there: “Here man completed his first exploration of the moon, December 1972”. In case anyone doubted its authenticity, it was signed by his crew and the US president, Richard Nixon.