One of the enduring images of the Soyuz TMA-19M mission that rocketed Tim Peake into orbit on 15 December 2015, wasn’t the spectacular launch itself or Peake floating into the ISS. It was the sight of excited children at the Science Museum, cheering on the European Space Agency’s first British astronaut.
Some of those children might be able to follow in his footsteps.
Of course, becoming an astronaut isn’t easy. For a start, the ESA is not currently accepting astronaut applications and has only done so three times — once in 1978, again in 1992 and most recently in 2008. Based on that pattern, the next European astronaut selection process might not take place until 2023.
Future candidates will need to satisfy some basic criteria. They must fit into the ESA’s preferred age range (between 27 and 37), while applicants should also be within a height range of 153 to 190 cm. According to ESA guidelines, an applicant’s personality should also “be characterised by high motivation, flexibility, gregariousness, empathy with fellow workers, a low level of aggressiveness and emotional stability.”
Still with us? To make it past the initial application stage, candidates also need to have a background in science, specifically a university degree at masters or doctorate level in natural sciences (physics, biology, chemistry, and earth sciences), medicine, engineering, information technology or mathematics.
Pilot qualifications offer another route to astronaut training — Tim Peake served as a helicopter flying instructor in the British Army and as a senior helicopter test pilot for AgustaWestland. Even then, successful applicants need to have logged a minimum of 1,000 hours in various high performance aircraft and hold a bachelor’s level university degree in the science disciplines mentioned above.
Even if you have the qualifications, Tim Peake says that “around 50 per cent of candidates fail the exacting [ESA] medical requirements.” As a minimum, you need to qualify for a JAR-FCL 3 Class 2 medical certificate, which is required for anyone applying for a private pilot’s license. This tests eyesight, hearing, heart rhythm, lung function, among other general fitness and health metrics.
During the selection process itself, skills such as memory retention, concentration, spatial awareness and coordination are evaluated, with candidates answering a series of psychological questionnaires to evaluate their suitability for spaceflight.
To put this all in perspective, over 10,000 people applied to join the European astronaut corps in 2008; 8413 applications were accepted; 22 were chosen for formal interviews after detailed psychological, medical and professional screening; 10 got to meet the director general of the ESA; while only 5 were chosen to become ESA astronaut candidates.
Even then, some astronauts can wait up to 10 years for a flight. Some may never fly.
There are (and will be) other routes to space. Anyone with American citizenship can apply to NASA, while a cluster of private space companies — including SpaceX, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic — could ultimately offer everyone the opportunity to become an astronaut. Even if that’s just as a passenger, it still counts.
“While it is fair to say that the best chances of success are to have a solid foundation in the core sciences or experience as a pilot,” Tim Peake told The Telegraph, “there really is no single route to becoming an astronaut – it has more to do with being passionate about what you do and being as good as you can be.”
Tim Peake’s mission to the ISS isn’t just historic, it’s also inspirational. Any one of those kids that we saw cheering Peake’s fiery ascent to the heavens, could well follow him into space someday. With a bit of luck… — Dean Evans (@evansdp)