Europe is looking for Astronauts

Europe is looking for Astronauts

20th May 2008, Comments 0 comments

The European Space Agency is looking for four new astronauts. Potential candidates must be in perfect physical and mental health, have a background in science and preferably some experience as a pilot. Around 40 candidates from the Netherlands reported to ESA's information day in the town of Noordwijk. By Willemien Groot.

Selection procedures for the European astronaut corps will begin on 19 May. The criteria appear to be rather lenient. Dutch astronaut André Kuipers puts the potential astronauts at ease by saying that  "You don't have to be Superman."

Everybody has a chance, man or woman, even if they are short of stature or wear glasses - as long as they are not pregnant. Russian language skills are a boon.
"And those psychological tests are intended to confuse you. Nobody comes out in one piece."

And yet, the full procedure takes a whole year, in which the candidates are subjected to extensive medical tests and examinations. André Kuipers is grinning:
"It will give you a chance to get used to hypodermic needles."
Medical examinations are a routine element in the lives of astronauts, who sometimes serve as human guinea pigs.

Standard bearer
The standard bearer of Dutch space travel gets many questions on how he managed to land this much-desired job.

"Just try; if you don't, you will regret it later".

As a child, he never fantasised about becoming an astronaut, but when he learned in 1992 that ESA was looking for candidates, he decided to try his luck.
"I did not have high expectations, but even back then there were people who said that I stood a decent chance."

André Kuipers made it to the final round, but was not selected. That did not happen until 1998, when the corps was expanded and candidates on the reserve list were given a second chance. André Kuipers is now in training for his second trip to the International Space Station.

As strange as it may sound, the European astronaut corps is short of people. The increasing European involvement in the ISS means more astronauts get to make the trip to the space station. At present, the corps has only eight active astronauts, none of whom are getting any younger. It is high time for a new generation of space travellers. Especially now that the plans for the construction of a lunar base and a manned trip to Mars are becoming increasingly realistic.

Each of the 40 potential space travellers has their own reason for applying for this dream job. Take Harry van Hulten for example, who is a 39-year-old F16 pilot for the Royal Dutch Air Force.

"It is an adventure, a dream come true. I think it will be overwhelmingly beautiful up there."

George Korthals Altes, a co-pilot on a Boeing 737 passenger jet, is interested in the future. Not just those of his children, but also regarding technology and its development. He already considers himself lucky in finding a dream job. But space travel is even more exciting.

"The most interesting thing about space travel is the developments that you could be part of. Civil aviation is a commercial enterprise; in space travel you are constantly involved in technological progress, which means that you never stop learning. For me, that is the main reason to take this chance."


Guillaume Weerts, ESA's selection coordinator, expects he will receive at least 20,000 applications from the 17 ESA countries. He warns that there is little chance of another Dutch person making it to the astronaut corps. In a marked departure from past procedures, there will be no pre-selection per country.

"The old procedure was time-consuming and costly, and we are determined to find the best candidates for the job."

André Kuipers says that in addition to being incredibly motivated, stress resistant and very social, you also have to be very patient.
"There is always a chance that, in spite of your training, you will never actually go up. A Swedish colleague had to wait for 14 years, but had a fantastic trip".
The real go-getters should understand that they would have to give up their careers. The training course takes so much time that a scientist or doctor would fall hopelessly behind in their professional fields.

The selection procedures start on 19 May and end on 15 June. If all goes well, the lucky ones will make their first trip to the ISS in 2013. The ultimate dream, for which they had to wait at least five years.


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20 May 2008

[Copyright Radio Netherlands 2008]

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