Diversity, the final frontier: space agency seeks disabled astronaut

Photo: ESA

The European Space Agency (ESA) is seeking new astronauts for the first time in a decade and wants to recruit one person with a disability.

At a briefing held today, ESA experts and astronauts discussed the selection criteria for the four to six astronauts who are needed. The agency said it was keen to improve its record on diversity and inclusion and wants one of the new recruits to have a disability – a “parastronaut”.

We did not evolve to go to space so when it comes to space travel, we are all disabled” – Samantha Cristoforetti, astronaut

Director of ESA’s human spaceflight programme Dr David Parker said the recruitment of a person with a disability was not tokenism. He told the BBC: “We have to be able to justify to all the people who fund us – which is everybody, including people who happen to be disabled – that what we’re doing is somehow meaningful to everybody.

“To be absolutely clear, we’re not looking to hire a space tourist that happens also to have a disability … this individual would do a meaningful space mission. So, they would need to do the science; they would need to participate in all the normal operations of the International Space Station.”

The International Paralympic Committee will advise ESA on selection.

In this recruitment round, individuals with a lower limb deficiency or who have restricted growth have been encouraged to apply. The selected person will be part of a feasibility project to understand the requirements, such as on safety and technical support. But the clear intention is to produce “parastronauts”.

“We did not evolve to go to space so when it comes to space travel, we are all disabled,” said astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti. “What brings us from being disabled to being able to go to space is just technology. This is a feasibility study and we’re going to look into what exactly is needed, how much it will cost – but that’s the goal.”

Cristoforetti is the only female ESA astronaut and just one of its senior directors is a woman. The agency says it is serious about addressing the gender imbalance with the new recruitment process.

To qualify, candidates must have a master’s degree (or higher) in natural sciences, medicine, engineering, mathematics or computer sciences, or be qualified as an experimental test pilot. Fluency in two languages, one being English, is required.

Four of those selected will go straight into the ESA astronaut corps in Cologne, Germany. A further 20 candidates will go into a reserve who will be available for call-up, either because of retirements among the existing astronauts or because individual ESA member states want to run a national mission to the International Space Station.

In 2009 the UK’s Tim Peake joined the agency despite the UK not then helping to fund ESA’s human spaceflight programme. But the agency emphasises that applications are accepted from all 22 ESA member states, regardless of national funding decisions.

Peake told the BBC of the latest recruitment announcement: “We’re involved in the Artemis programme, which will send humans back to the surface of the Moon, and that’s a gateway to Mars. So this [draft] could be recruiting the first Europeans who will set foot on Mars.”

A new website with details of the astronaut selection has been launched. The application period runs from 31 March to 28 May 2021. ESA will only consider applications submitted to the ESA Career website within those eight weeks. After that, a six-stage selection process will start, lasting until October 2022.

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