They were 22,589 in the spring of 2021. 22,589 Europeans submitted their applications to the European Space Agency (ESA)between March 31 and May 28, with the dream of becoming the future colleague of Thomas Pesquet.
The ESA then wanted to recruit at least four profiles – perhaps six – to expand its current “pool” of seven astronauts, including, therefore, the Frenchman Thomas Pesquet. The space agency had not launched a recruitment campaign of this magnitude since 2008.
A new promotion unveiled this Wednesday
A year and a half later, here we are. ESA will benefit from its ministerial conference, which is currently being held at the ephemeral Grand Palais in Paris, to unveil its new promotion of astronauts this Wednesday afternoon. They will be at least four, maybe six, chosen from among those who have passed the six selection stages which took place until last month.
A first skimming, based on the documents and questionnaires submitted by the candidates when submitting the CVs, should already have made it possible to reduce their number to 1,500. This was followed by a battery of tests (psycho-cognitive, psychometric, practical) at the ESA assessment center in Hamburg. Then, the following stage was that of the medical selection, more precisely the test of the physical and mental capacities of the candidates still in contention compared to the international medical standards for the missions of long duration astronauts.
Two rounds of interviews were to crown it all. A first to test technical and behavioral skills. A second in the office of the ESA Director General, Josef Aschbacher, the final stage of this obstacle course.
Scientific profiles more than airplane pilots?
What will be the profile of the lucky ones? When launching its recruitment campaign in February 2021, the space agency insisted that it was not necessarily looking, as is often believed, for test pilot profiles. But much more scientific profiles, graduates at least at Master’s level in the fields of natural sciences, medicine, engineering, mathematics or computer sciences. The selection mechanism did not include any gender criteria either. This was also one of the good news at the close of applications: Of the 22,589 applications received, 5,419, or 24%, came from Europeans. We are still far from parity, but it was much more than in the previous campaign, for which 1,287 Europeans had tried their luck out of 18,000 applications received.
Probably more than sex, it will be nationality that should be scrutinized closely this Wednesday, each of the 22 ESA member states cherishing the hope of seeing one of its own join the pool. “It would be legitimate for Belgium to have an astronaut this Wednesday”, thus launched Thomas Dermine, the Belgian Secretary of State in charge of Space Policy, in the columns of the Free Belgium, Monday. Two arguments were put forward by the Belgian daily. On the one hand, Belgium is the fifth largest contributor to the ESA budget. Two, 1,019 of its citizens had applied in the spring of 2021 (1,019). Only five countries had more.
A hoped-for Frenchman?
But if we take up these two arguments, France also has very good reasons to hope. It is not only the second largest contributor to the ESA budget, behind Germany, but it is also from here that the ESA had received the most applications. And not just a little. 7,137 French had sent their CV, almost twice as many as the Germans (3,700), second.
New this time: the ESA will not be satisfied with recruiting four to six new astronauts. The European Space Agency also announces the first constitution of a reserve of astronauts, made up of candidates who have passed all the stages of the selection process without joining the final cohort. These reserve astronauts will remain employed by their current companies.
At the launch of its recruitment campaign, ESA also announced that it would open the doors of space to one or more candidates with a physical disability, via the parallel “Parastronaut” programme. Again, the names of the lucky ones could be announced this Wednesday.