'An exciting time': European Space Agency takes diversity to space

Helen Sharman, the UK’s first astronaut, praises the agency as it begins a search for 26 recruits

Helen Sharman, the UK’s first astronaut, has welcomed the European Space Agency’s decision to improve diversity among crew as an “exciting time for human space flight expansion”.

Esa announced earlier this week that as part of its bid to recruit up to 26 new astronauts it was casting its net wider than ever and that diversity – across gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, beliefs and physical disability – will be at the heart of its recruitment efforts.

Sharman said she was “delighted that there is to be a new Esa astronaut selection” and welcomed “the news that Esa wants a better representation of the population’s diversity in its space crews”.

She joins other leading European astronauts, including Tim Peake, from the UK, and the 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 advert looking for astronauts. She was selected ahead of 13,000 other applicants and eventually flew on a Soyuz rocket, spending eight days onboard Mir, the former Russian space station.

Today, the odds of being selected as an astronaut remain as daunting. Speaking at a press conference earlier this week, Esa’s director general, Jan Wörner, said that in 2009 when Esa last recruited new astronauts more than 8,000 candidates applied. Six were ultimately chosen. Peake was one of them.

Esa’s search for new astronauts will include four to six new “career astronauts” who would 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 may be called on for one-off missions.

Wörner stressed: “Diversity is not a burden for us. Diversity is an asset.”

He added: “Since its creation in 1975, Esa has brought together a diversity of countries and cultures. But diversity is also something we are looking at in a broader sense. For this new search, we would particularly encourage women to apply because it’s very interesting and supportive if we have mixed teams.”

Of the 560 people who have flown in space, only 11% have been women.

In the 1950s, when Nasa first contemplated sending humans into space, their initial call for astronauts looked for men shorter than 5ft 11in (180cm) who had engaged in dangerous and physical activities, such as scuba diving and mountaineering.

The then-US president, Dwight Eisenhower, personally intervened, insisting that only military test pilots would be eligible, a requirement that effectively blocked women from applying.

The Soviet Union took a different approach. Its large death toll in the second world war meant there were many more women in professional roles. In 1963, the cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in space.

It would be 20 years before another woman would reach orbit.

Space agencies are now looking 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 suits in the right sizes). In October 2020, the toilets on board the International Space Station were replaced with a new design that works better for women, as well as men.

And Nasa has committed, as part of its Artemis programme, to land the first woman and next man on the moon by 2024.

Beyond gender, for the first time, Esa will also be considering people with physical disabilities as part of a new project called the Parastronaut feasibility project.

Cristoforetti said: “When it comes to space travel we are all disabled. We did not evolve to go to space. And so [sending an individual with a physical disability into space] becomes a question of technology.”

Esa’s ultimate aim is that an astronaut with a physical disability could eventually fly to the International Space Station. Peake said: “It’s about ability, it’s not about disability … I wouldn’t have any concerns at all with flying to space for the person with disabilities.”

Sharman said she expects that as human space flight becomes more commercial, going to space will become more accessible as people work for companies that carry out tasks in space.

“Those astronauts will not be career astronauts, employed by a space agency, but instead they will spend periods of time in space just as they might spend periods of time in different workplaces on Earth. It is an exciting time for human space flight expansion,” she said.

Beyond astronaut selection, Esa also spoke about the “diversity of launch vehicles”. Government rockets used to be the only way to get to space. Future astronauts might find themselves on a SpaceX or Boeing rocket, or even a Soyuz – the same craft that took Sharman to space almost 30 years ago.

Contributor

Zahaan Bharmal

The GuardianTramp

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