How do you become an astronaut at ESA, like Sophie Adenot?

ESA has chosen its new astronauts: 5 career astronauts, including the French Sophie Adenot, a parastronaut, reservists… What does it take to become an astronaut? Guillemette Gauquelin-Koch and Rémi Canton, from CNES, explain it in The Conversation.

The European Space Agency has just announced the names of the five new astronauts selected to be part of the career astronaut corps.

On the French side, it is Sophie Adenot, the first French woman helicopter test pilot, today Lieutenant-Colonel of the Air and Space Force. This is the second French woman astronaut, 20 years later Claudie Haignere.

There is also the Briton Rosemary Coogan (doctoral student at the French space agency, CNES), the Spaniard Pablo Álvarez Fernández, the Belgian Raphaël Liégeois, and the Swiss Marco Sieber. John McFall of the United Kingdom becomes the first “parastronaut”.

Eleven reservists were also selected and presented to the general public, including the Frenchman Arnaud Prost.

This new class thus joins the seven European astronauts already in service, including two Italians, two Germans, an Englishman, a Dane and of course a Frenchman, our well-known Thomas Pesquet.

They will be brought to join the international space station and carry out scientific experiments there: the weightlessness situation on board the ISS makes it possible to carry out experiments impossible to carry out on Earth in various fields such as medicine, biology, physics, neurosciences or even botany.

A more distant destination also awaits some elements of the new promotion… the Moon! Indeed, between now and the end of the decade, European astronauts will take part in three flights aboard the “Gateway” orbital station, which will be in orbit around the Moon.

In the longer term, other flights to the surface of the Moon are envisaged and the next people to walk on the Moon could be Europeans.

How are astronauts recruited?

Recruitment campaigns for astronauts in Europe, there are not often. The last one dated from 2009: at the time more than 8,000 candidates had applied across Europe, for only six places at the end of the race… This time, more than 22,000 applications were sent in 2021 , including more than 7,000 French women (5,400 men and 1,600 women), the nation by far the most represented among the applicants.

The selection of these new astronauts lasts more than a year. It starts with a certain number of criteria of age, training and experience: you had to be between 27 and 50 years old, have at least a master’s degree in a scientific field, have at least three years of professional experience and speak fluent English – essential for learning the trade in an international context.

If having an engineering degree or a master’s degree in science (natural sciences, aeronautics, mathematics, computer science, etc.) or being a doctor, researcher or pilot is essential to apply to become an astronaut, it is also to be a real Swiss army knife: diving , aviation, skydiving, music, languages ​​and foreign experiences; more than technical and scientific skills, candidates must present operational skills.

So-called “soft skills” are just as important. You have to be able to keep calm under pressure, stay motivated in the face of irregular working hours and frequent travel, adapt to your environment, be a good teammate, for example.

Future astronauts are put to the test with psychological tests

The objective of the selection is not to look for superheroines and superheroes, but to highlight people who have the potential to become one.

At the end of a first phase of study of the files, which makes it possible to skim 90% of the applications, the selected candidates must pass psychotechnical and psychological tests, individual or in team, of all kinds: logic, orientation in the space, multitasking ability, memory tests, mental arithmetic. In all, there are about twenty intense tests whose purpose is not to observe if you are ultra-efficient for a minute, but to test your motivation and analyze over time if your performance collapses. or resist.

After these tests, there are only a few hundred candidates left. For them, the marathon has only just begun. They undergo collective tests to better understand the personalities of each in various contexts. Here, the objective is obviously not to select the biggest egos but those who will integrate best into a team, will make the best decisions under pressure, will be resilient, patient, persevering, calm, organized and of good tolerance to confinement and confined spaces.

For the few hundred remaining candidates finally comes the last phase before the final selection: very extensive medical tests for a week – cardiologist, neurologist, MRI, ophthalmologist and ENT in particular.

Then, what do the selected astronauts do?

For these new astronauts, the adventure has only just begun because they must now be trained. They will each be required to carry out at least two six-month flights aboard the International Space Station.

On board the station, there is no doctor or plumber. Astronauts must be able to do everything and therefore must learn everything about the functioning of the station to be able to repair it.

The training therefore begins with eighteen months of theoretical training, with on the menu an update in many fields: space mechanics, propulsion, biology, space systems, computer science, trajectory calculation, but also medicine. The training will mainly take place european astronaut training center in Cologne, Germany, but the apprentice astronauts will have to travel to each country contributing to the ISS, in particular the United States, Russia, Japan or Canada.

Theoretical learning will be doubled by many hours in life-size simulators in order to prepare for all situations: future astronauts train, for example, in module models of the International Space Station. These modules allow them to see things as they are in the station and therefore to be able to train on the one hand for emergency scenarios (fire extinguishing or depressurization), and on the other hand (and above all) for their use (PC systems, storage, among others).

As for training on space vehicles, the new astronauts will train either in Moscow on the Soyuzor at SpaceX for the Crew Dragon. They can also train in huge swimming pools which partly reproduce the conditions of extravehicular outings called “EVA”, when it is necessary to go out outside the international space station to carry out repairs for example. These pool exercises take place either in Cologne or at the Johnson Space Center.

Thomas Pesquet training in a pool.  // Source: ESA – H. Rueb
Thomas Pesquet training in a pool. // Source : ESA – H. Rueb

But most of their training still remains…in the classroom.

Assignment to a mission can take years

Then, when the astronauts have been assigned to a mission – assignment to a mission can sometimes take years, it will take them another 18 months to prepare for it specifically.

Indeed, each mission includes many scientific experiments that will be carried out on board. Astronauts must know the manipulations and protocols that they will have to implement once up there at their fingertips.

For example, during the Alpha mission, Thomas Pesquet conducted around a hundred experiments, several of which were designed and piloted from France by the CADMOS (Centre for the development of activities in microgravity and space operations) – in particular on the astronaut sleep and experiences of “telerobotics” for guiding and capturing tasks.

He also tested a acoustic gripper for manipulating objects from a distance, as well as reusable packaging – recycling being a key issue for long-duration flights. On the biology side, Thomas Pesquet also conducted an experiment on the blob, at the same time as 300,000 students on the surface of the Earth.

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Guillemette Gauquelin-KochHead of Life Sciences at CNES, National Center for Space Studies (CNES) and Remi CantonHuman Flight Project Manager (CADMOS) , National Center for Space Studies (CNES)

This article is republished from The Conversation under Creative Commons license. Read theoriginal article.

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