Europe Wants To Diversify Its Pool Of Astronauts

For the first time in over a decade the European Space Agency is now accepting applications, with increased diversity as the main purpose. The agency specifically aims to recruit more women and people with disabilities, setting the tone of a more inclusive and progressive future. This gives more talented individuals the opportunity to fulfil their dream and head out to space. 

The agency is currently preparing for sending seven astronauts on a mission to the International Space Station, of which only one is a woman, named Samantha Cristoforetti. However, the new application guidelines now encourage women to apply for the latest openings, as well as disabled people. In an interview given to the New York Times, the agency’s manager of recruitment Lucy van der Tas stated, “You do not need to be a superman or a superwoman,” and added, “We want to motivate as many people as possible to apply. But in the end, we are looking for very specific candidates.”

The aim is to hire four to six astronauts along with 20 reserves who could participate in brief missions. Any new member with disabilities would first join the group of reserves to cooperate with the agency and work on possible modifications they might need in order to go into space. Ironically, the complexity for humans to live in space is a legitimate reason for promoting opportunities for people with disabilities. Considering space travel, everyone is disabled, and the key to the problem is simply technology.

Eventually, the successful candidates will be sent out on missions to the moon and possibly Mars. But first, they have to engage in many years of hard training to prepare, including survival skills, how to operate the spacecraft, speaking Russian, and spending eight hours underwater to replicate the feeling of weightlessness. Additionally, applicants are required to have a master’s degree in natural sciences, engineering, medicine, mathematics or computer science, along with a minimum of three years of work in any related field.

Diversification among astronaut applicants indicates a progressive attitude toward equal opportunities for everyone. Up until this point, 90 percent of all astronauts have been men, and only two women, Samantha Cristoforetti and Claudie Haigneré, have been sent to space by the European Space Agency. Additionally, in the last round of recruitment in 2008, only 16 percent of 8,000 applicants were women. In fact, the lack of diversity impedes on our ability to analyze the universe in the most efficient way possible, as it produces a lack of experience. Therefore, hiring more women has scientific advantages. “Space affects us very differently, depending on age, gender and ethnicity,” Lucy van Der Tas said. “The astronaut corps worldwide is very small, so we need to diversify it as much as possible.”

Moreover, the new way of thinking shows the dedication to give everyone a chance. “We feel strongly that if we don’t start now, it will never happen,” stated Lucy van der Tas. “We are opening the door to a certain part of the society, so they too can dream of becoming an astronaut.” According to the New York Times, the European Space Agency’s David Parker, who is the director of the robotics and spaceflight program, explained that the chosen candidates will not be “a space tourist who happens also to have a disability” but rather someone who deserves to be there for their skills and knowledge.

The European Space Agency has set an example with their recently developed hiring method and should be followed by more space programs across the world such as NASA, the American Space Agency, and the Chinese National Space Agency (CNSA). Influential agencies must take a stand as we need to establish an environment where diversity is encouraged.