How do you become a European astronaut?
ESA Samantha Cristoforetti in training. Credit: ESA/NASA

How do you become a European astronaut?

28/11/2019Written by Tamela Maciel

What does it take to become the next ESA astronaut?

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ISS cupola. Credit: NASA

Astronauts are said to represent the pinnacle of human exploration.

On our behalf, these explorers test the limits of the human body, develop the technologies to help us live a more sustainable life, and explore the mysteries of the universe in one of the most extreme work environments: microgravity.

Of course, astronauts do not do it alone. Behind a single astronaut there are hundreds of people who train and guide their mission, from mission controllers and medics to rocket engineers and scientists.

Beyond a specific mission, there are thousands more people across the space industry that shape the science and technology research, including astrophysicists, materials scientists, science teachers, and biologists.

Being an astronaut is a demanding and multi-skilled role that only the most experienced team players can fill.

Here in Europe, the European Space Agency (ESA) last recruited a class of astronauts in 2008, and the key requirements and statistics of that recruitment can tell us a lot about what it will take to be selected in the next round.

The key requirements

The key requirements
ESA astronaut Tim Peake in his EVA suit check. Credit: ESA
The key requirements
ESA astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti on the ISS. Credit: ESA
The key requirements
ESA astronaut Thomas Pesquet on the ISS. Credit: ESA

In 2008, the basic requirements to become an ESA astronaut were:

  • National of an ESA member state between the age of 27-37 years old, and between the height range of 153 to 190 cm
  • Fluency in English
  • University degree (or equivalent) in the sciences, engineering or medicine
  • Three years professional work experience in a related field (for example as a test pilot, scientist, or doctor)
  • Physical fitness appropriate for age with a JAR-FCL 3 Class 2 medical certificate

In addition, the initial online application asked for the following preferred experiences:

  • Pilot
  • Additional language fluency in Russian, French, or German
  • Living and working abroad
  • Public speaking or outreach engagement
  • Life science experiments
  • Medical or emergency responder
  • Hands-on experimental research
  • Scientific expeditions
  • Scientific publications
  • Professional associations
  • Sport activities (such as mountaineering, diving, caving, or sky-diving)
  • Manual skills
  • Charitable or community services

Clearly, not every applicant was able to tick every box, but this long list shows just how multi-talented astronauts are expected to be.

Cognitive tests

The initial online application is just the start of the process.

In 2008, at the start of ESA’s latest astronaut recruitment, 8,413 applications were successfully submitted.

These initial applicants came from a range of countries including 22% from France, 21% from Germany, 11% from Italy, and 10% from Britain. Overall, there were 83% men and 17% women who applied.

From this initial pool, only 11% (900 applicants) were invited to take additional cognitive tests. These timed tests challenged the candidates’ skill in logic, memory, deduction, multi-tasking, and spatial awareness.

ESA astronaut Tim Peake describes many of the cognitive puzzles that his class were tested on in his book, The Astronaut Selection Test Book. He describes the process in the video below.

Psychological and medical tests

Psychological and medical tests
Samantha Cristoforetti in the cupola. Credit: ESA

Following the cognitive tests, and some additional questionnaires that explored the medical history and personality traits of the applicants, only 2% (190 applicants) of the initial pool were selected for further psychological testing.

This included in-person tests of team work, cooperation, and multi-tasking, as well as an individual psychological interview and an interview in front of a panel of experts.

After these psychological tests, only 0.5% (45 applicants) of the initial pool were successful, and passed on for a further week of medical testing.

Extensive medical tests focused on medical fitness rather than physical fitness. In particular, doctors tested the candidates’ cardiovascular, vision, thyroid, sensory, and respiratory fitness. At this stage, the main reason for disqualification was for cardiovascular issues.

Final interviews and selection

Final interviews and selection
ESA astronaut class of 2009. Credit: ESA–M. Koell
Final interviews and selection
Nine years of ESA's 2009 astronaut class. Credit: ESA

After medical testing, only 0.2% (22 applicants) of the initial pool were invited for final interviews with a panel of senior ESA managers.

Of these, only 0.1% (10 applicants) were interviewed by ESA’s Director-General.

Finally, in 2009, after nearly a year of tests, 6 new ESA astronauts were selected. This amounted to a success rate of just 0.07% of the initial 8,413 applicants.

The 2009 ESA class of astronauts came from a wide range of backgrounds:

Samantha Cristoforetti (Italy) – Fighter pilot

Alexander Gerst (Germany) – Geophysicist

Andreas Mogensen (Denmark) – Aerospace engineer

Luca Parmitano (Italy) – Test pilot

Timothy Peake (United Kingdom) – Test pilot

Thomas Pesquet (France) – Air-France pilot / Engineer

In 2015, ESA appointed a seventh member to the class: Mattias Maurer (Germany). Mattias was in the top 10 during the 2008 recruitment but narrowly missed out on a place. After additional ESA work as crew support, he was selected in 2015 and completed training in 2018. Maurer is scheduled to fly in 2021.

Astronaut training

Astronaut training
ESA Samantha Cristoforetti in training. Credit: ESA/NASA

Of course, selection is just the beginning of an astronaut’s journey. The real work begins in training, with more than two years of extensive scientific, physical, and academic training at space facilities around the world.

This includes 18 months of basic training including Russian lessons, pilot training, jet training, scuba diving, survival training, and classroom-based training in spaceflight, space systems, and orbital mechanics.

Advanced training takes an additional 12 months, including a focus on the specific details of the International Space Station and hands-on training in simulators.

Finally, once an astronaut is assigned to a specific mission, they will go through an additional 12 months of training specific to their role on the mission, including team training as a crew and EVA training.

This video shows the many different elements of Tim Peake’s astronaut training, from survival training in caves and the Russian wilderness to microgravity experience on the vomit comet.

Credit: NASA

Becoming an astronaut is a hugely rewarding, but daunting commitment. This is especially true today when both ESA and NASA are beginning to recruit astronauts for the next generation of missions to the Moon and beyond.

Only the most multi-talented, level-headed, engaging, team players will make the cut and become our space ambassadors and explorers.

These astronauts become our scientists, engineers, medics, teachers, and technicians in space.

But more importantly, they are the people that can share the human story of what it’s like to live outside the protective oasis of Earth’s climate.

About the author: Dr Tamela Maciel is the Space Communications Manager at the National Space Centre.