Helen Sharman, the UK’s first astronaut, has welcomed the European Space Agency’s decision to enhance diversity among the crew as an “exciting time for the expansion of manned spaceflight”.
Esa announced earlier this week that, as part of its bid to recruit up to 26 new astronauts, it was expanding its network more than ever and that diversity, through gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, beliefs and physical disability, will be at the fore. the heart of your recruiting efforts.
Sharman said she was “delighted that there is a new selection of Esa astronauts” and welcomed “the news that Esa wants a better representation of population diversity in its space crews.”
He joins other leading European astronauts, including UK’s Tim Peake and Italian astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti, in praising Esa’s latest astronaut recruitment drive and the agency’s focus on improving diversity.
In 1989, Sharman responded to a radio ad looking for astronauts. She was selected before 13,000 other applicants and eventually flew in a Soyuz rocket, spending eight days aboard Mir, the former Russian space station.
Today, the odds of being selected as an astronaut remain grim. At a press conference earlier this week, Esa CEO Jan Wörner said that in 2009, when Esa last recruited new astronauts, more than 8,000 candidates applied. Finally, six were chosen. Peake was one of them.
Esa’s search for new astronauts will include four to six new “career astronauts” who will undertake long-term missions, such as flying to the moon. For the first time, Esa is also looking for 20 additional “reserve astronauts” who would not need to leave their day jobs but could be called up for specific missions.
Wörner stressed: “Diversity is not a burden for us. Diversity is an asset. “
He added: “Since its inception in 1975, Esa has brought together a diversity of countries and cultures. But diversity is also something that we are seeing in a broader sense. For this new search, we would especially encourage women to apply because it is very interesting and supportive if we have mixed teams. ”
Of the 560 people who have flown into space, only 11% have been women.
In the 1950s, when NASA first contemplated sending humans into space, its initial astronaut call was looking for men under 5 feet 11 inches (180 cm) who had engaged in physical and dangerous activities, such as the diving and mountaineering.
Then-US President Dwight Eisenhower personally intervened, insisting that only military test pilots would be eligible, a requirement that effectively blocked the women’s application.
The Soviet Union took a different approach. Their high death toll in WWII meant that there were many more women in professional positions. In 1963, cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in space.
It would be 20 years before another woman reached orbit.
Space agencies now seek to expand diversity in their ranks. In 2019, NASA successfully completed its first all-female spacewalk (its first attempt had to be postponed due to a lack of suitably sized suits). In October 2020, the restrooms on board the International Space Station were replaced with a new design that works better for both women and men.
And NASA has committed, as part of its Artemis program, to putting the first woman and the next man on the moon by 2024.
Beyond gender, for the first time, Esa will also consider people with physical disabilities as part of a new project called the Parastronaut viability project.
Cristoforetti said: “When it comes to space travel, we are all disabled. We do not evolve to go into space. And then [sending an individual with a physical disability into space] it becomes a matter of technology. “
The ultimate goal of Esa is that an astronaut with a physical disability can eventually fly to the International Space Station. Peake said, “It’s about ability, not disability … I would have no concern in flying into space for the person with a disability.”
Sharman said he hopes that as manned space flight becomes more commercial, going into space will be more accessible as people work for companies that perform tasks in space.
“Those astronauts will not be career astronauts, employed by a space agency, but will spend periods of time in space in the same way that they could spend periods of time in different workplaces on Earth. It is an exciting time for the expansion of manned space flight, ”he said.
Beyond the selection of astronauts, Esa also spoke about the “diversity of launch vehicles”. Government rockets used to be the only way to get into space. Future astronauts could find themselves on a SpaceX or Boeing rocket, or even a Soyuz, the same ship that took Sharman into space nearly 30 years ago.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism