Astronauts - Dream of venturing beyond the sky in search of unknowns in space
In 1st of 4-part series, Anadolu discusses how to become an astronaut, what conditions are sought, and personal experiences of space travelers with both astronauts and astronaut trainers
By Tugba Altun
ANKARA (AA) – Flying has always had an emotional appeal for humans. The fear and excitement of the idea of floating in space and watching the Earth from above always piqued people's interest. The people who succeeded in this next step developed the concept of going deep into space and invented one of the most expensive professions in the world.
In the first of a four-part series, Anadolu discusses how to become an astronaut, what conditions are sought, and the personal experiences of space travelers with both astronauts and astronaut trainers.
Seeing beyond the sky was once just a dream. But with technological advancement, the journey into the unknown has become possible, albeit arduous and costly.
It is an attractive profession for those who dream of going beyond the sky in search of the unknowns in space. However, becoming an astronaut is not as simple as responding to the question "What do you want to be when you grow up?" To be an astronaut, you must have a profession in one of the basic disciplines.
Being an astronaut requires a strong mind and body, as well as advanced interdisciplinary training. Space agencies select the best of the best after screening thousands of eligible candidates.
In the US, the first astronauts were selected by the military in 1959 from among military personnel with engineering backgrounds and piloting experience.
Being an astronaut requires knowledge of fundamental disciplines such as flight and engineering, as well as the ability to apply that knowledge.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the European Space Agency (ESA) expect candidates to have a high-level education, particularly in engineering, biology, physics, computer systems, mathematics, or medicine. It is also preferred that candidates have completed pilot school and have prior work experience in this field.
- Strong communication, determination, stress tolerance
Apart from technical qualifications, space agencies look for qualities in astronaut candidates such as leadership, determination, teamwork, helping other members of the team, working under pressure, and strong communication.
Since astronauts’ bodies are exposed to a great deal of stress and heavy physical activities during flights, it is considered essential that they be healthy and have a high level of physical endurance.
Speaking to Anadolu, Ruediger Seine, head of the astronaut training division at ESA, detailed what they look for in astronaut candidates who meet all technical specifications.
“What we're really looking for are people who are stress resistant, very team-oriented, have a good aptitude for astronautics skills, good hand-eye coordination, a good health... any expeditionary or operational experience is always very interesting for us and you can gain that in a research environment, if you've been on expeditions, or in your private life if you're, for instance, in the voluntary rescue forces. You can gain that… of course… by military experience as well,” said Seine.
“So there are a lot of options, but what we're looking for are people that can deal with the unforeseen situation that life throws at you and have demonstrated the skill in doing so, and of course, good team workers and people with a high level of curiosity,” he added.
- ‘It's interesting to meet people with top talent’
It is very interesting for Seine to meet new astronauts, to talk to highly talented people, and observe their behavior.
The ESA has already recruited new astronauts in Nov. 2022 and five of them are still in training. Seine said they are in the second month of the current training program.
“If you're a teacher, and your training is appreciated, there's always something that that you're happy about. Then, of course, when you've seen them with the initial steps when the astronauts are finally assigned to their mission and are here for the last training, there’s also an element of pride.”
On the other hand, astronauts must be excellent communicators because they will frequently interact with the public. Fluency in English and a working knowledge of Russian are also considered essential. Knowledge of American, Russian, and Japanese cultures also ensures good relations with international partners on the International Space Station (ISS).
- Elimination processes
The NASA Astronaut Selection Board, which is made up of experienced astronauts who are aware of the requirements of this profession, reviews the applications and evaluates the competencies of each candidate.
Candidates with the most potential are invited to an interview at the Johnson Space Center. Half of the interviewees are called back for a second interview, and new astronauts are selected from this group.
April Jordan, NASA astronaut selection manager, emphasizes that meeting very competent people is the most interesting aspect of the screening process, adding that it is interesting to observe people's reactions and see how they deal with the process.
NASA astronaut Edward Michael Fincke, who spent 381 days, 15 hours, and 11 minutes in space, pointed out that the most difficult step of the elimination process is health checks, and that people who will be sent into space will not be able to step into this profession unless they are healthy.
Fincke told Anadolu that the interview process is also very interesting and that they meet with experienced astronauts and senior officials to try to understand the character of the candidates and how they would behave in a team in space.
Japanese Space Agency (JAXA) retired astronaut Yamazaki Naoko also told Anadolu that apart from the general conditions in the astronaut selection process in her country, JAXA also opens its doors to people who have not been trained in science.
Yamazaki said they could not make any preparations because they did not know what kind of tests they would face during the qualifying process, and that when the JAXA Space Center and its management told them what to do, it was very demanding and competitive.
- Just 17 of 22,500 applications accepted
Astronauts must stand between 150 and 190 centimeters tall. It is sufficient for candidates to be of normal weight according to the criteria of the World Health Organization. Candidates are expected to have a hearing capacity of 25 decibels or more per ear.
Only 17 of 22,500 applications for astronaut recruitment in 2021-2022 were accepted by the ESA.
During the screening process of the candidates, cognitive, technical, motor coordination, and personality tests are applied. In the next stage, psychometric tests, individual and group exercises, and practical tests are carried out in the assessment center. During the health check, candidates are evaluated to see if they are physically and psychologically fit for long-term astronaut missions. For those who have a physical problem, the ESA Medical Board applies different tests.
After these stages, panel interviews are held, in which the technical aspects and attitudes of the candidates are evaluated and their training is verified. Following the criminal records being examined, the candidates meet with the ESA general director for the final interview.
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