PARIS — The European Space Agency has selected its first new astronauts in more than a decade, though long-term flight opportunities for the agency’s astronaut corps remain uncertain.
At an event here right after a briefing on the agency’s new three-year budget on Nov. 10. On 23 January, ESA announced a class of 17 it was selecting as a combination of professional and backup astronauts, completing a selection process that began last year with more than 22,500 applicants. It is the agency’s first new class of astronauts since 2009.
Five of the 17 are ‘career’ astronauts, who will join ESA full-time and begin training at the European Astronaut Center in Cologne, Germany, in April. After completing a year of basic training, they will join ESA’s seven career astronauts and be eligible for flight assignments.
The five career astronauts are:
- Sophie Adenot, French helicopter pilot;
- Pablo Álvarez Fernández, Spanish engineer;
- Rosemary Coogan, a British astrophysicist;
- Raphaël Liégeois, Belgian neuroscientist; And
- Marco Sieber, Swiss doctor.
Eleven others were selected as “backup” astronauts. “They are not yet directly employed by ESA through a permanent contract, but will be available for future astronaut activities” while remaining in their current jobs, said ESA Director General Josef Aschbacher.
The final astronaut is John McFall, chosen by ESA as part of a “parastronaut” feasibility study to see if people with some physical disabilities could fly into space. McFall, a British doctor, lost his right leg in a motorcycle accident at the age of 19, but became a Paralympian in track and field.
“Being an astronaut is a very exclusive thing, but having a disability shouldn’t exclude you,” David Parker, ESA’s director of human and robotic exploration, said at the event. “We are experiencing something here. It’s something we’re really excited to do.”
“I felt compelled to help ESA answer this question: Can we get someone with a physical disability to do meaningful work in space?” McFall said.
The focus of the feasibility study will be on safety for both the parastronaut and his crewmates, said Frank De Winne, head of the European Astronaut Center and himself a former astronaut, in an interview ahead of the astronaut’s announcement. .
“When you have an emergency on the launch pad, you have to be able to evacuate the vehicle in a very short amount of time,” he said. “How can we ensure that the parastronaut can meet these requirements together with his crew without endangering himself or his crew?”
The feasibility study, which will include participation from NASA and others, will examine what modifications might be necessary to the International Space Station and crew transport vehicles to accommodate the parastronaut. “We have to find an agreement with international partners and we have to understand if vehicle adaptations are necessary,” she said.
For new career astronauts, they will be eligible for missions to the ISS once their training is complete. ESA also has seats on three Artemis missions as part of a deal with NASA, and ESA officials have previously said they expect two of those seats will be on Artemis 4 and 5 missions, as they deliver European components to the Lunar gateway.
The Artemis flights will likely go to existing ESA astronauts, all of whom have flight experience. “The new class of astronauts will make their first flights to the space station,” De Winne said. For the Artemis missions, she said, “we think it’s prudent to select astronauts who have proven their capabilities and who already have some spaceflight experience.”
ESA has not yet selected astronauts for any of the Artemis missions. De Winne said the selection will likely take place about two years before each mission.
For ISS missions, De Winne said ESA flies, on average, one astronaut every year and a half. The agency is starting to think about how it will fly astronauts after the ISS is expected to retire in 2030, a date that ESA member states formally approved at the ministerial meeting.
NASA plans to move the research and technology development activities currently carried out on the ISS to one or more commercial space stations whose development it is helping to stimulate. “We have to see in Europe how we enter that world,” De Winne said, with planning a focus for the next three years, until the next ministerial meeting in 2025.
Those options, he said, include buying services directly from commercial space station operators and reaching a new barter deal with NASA in which it buys commercial space station flights and then trades them to ESA. Another option, he said, is for ESA to develop its own carrying capacity for cargo or crew and offer it to commercial space station operators to offset the costs of using those stations.
ESA member states, he said, want to maintain the same level of activity in that post-ISS environment as they do on the ISS today, including about one flight a year and a similar amount of research. “So we need to see how we implement it and that’s the big question we all have.”