British women are being encouraged to seize a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” to go to space, after the European Space Agency (Esa) extended its deadline to apply to be one of its new astronauts.
The agency is seeking to recruit 26 astronauts – a process only undertaken once in about a decade – and is hoping to attract a more diverse cohort. People with some disabilities are being urged to put themselves forward for the first time.
“For pretty much everyone applying now, this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, so women who are on the fence about whether or not they should apply should just go for it,” said Bluebell Drummond, a member of Cavendish Inspiring Women – a group of Cambridge physicists who work to support women in science.
She said: “Hopefully, younger women and girls thinking about if this is something they could apply to in the future will be encouraged and realise that it’s not incompatible with other dreams they might have.
“You don’t need to join the RAF and be a test pilot to be an astronaut any more. You can be a medical doctor or a marine biologist or loads of different things.”
Libby Jackson, the UK Space Agency’s human exploration programme manager, agreed, saying: “We expect the next British professional astronaut to come from this corps, so this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for some people and they shouldn’t miss it.” She agreed that it was important to encourage more women to apply, adding that the agency also wanted more British people in general to come forward.
The UK’s first astronaut, Helen Sharman, was among those to praise Esa for focusing on the diversity of its astronaut corps when it announced the opening of the new selection process in February, while Esa’s director general Jan Wörner has said: “Diversity is not a burden for us. Diversity is an asset.”
For the first time, the agency has opened a “parastronaut feasibility project to assess the conditions for including astronauts with disabilities to work in space”. It includes people who have issues with their lower limbs, as well as those shorter than 1.3m (4ft 3in).
Speaking in February, Tim Peake, the British astronaut selected in the last round in 2009, hailed the move, saying: “It’s about ability, it’s not about disability.” And the Italian astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti added: “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.”
The competition for a place is exceptionally tough. According to Wörner, only six astronauts were selected from more than 8,000 candidates in 2009.
Nevertheless, the UK Space Agency believes the extension to the deadline – introduced by Esa to give Lithuanians a fair chance to apply after their country joined the agency – offers a chance for a final push to get people to come forward. Both Jackson and Drummond urged anyone worried they do not meet all of the criteria to apply anyway.
Jackson said: “Don’t let your subconscious or your inner voice decide, let Esa decide. Because astronauts come from all sorts of different places.
“You can’t take a degree in being an astronaut. The minimum requirements – and, absolutely, there are some – are not as onerous as some people might imagine. We’re not looking for superhuman beings.
“So, if you fit into those categories, if you’re genuinely motivated, if you’re excited by it, go for it.”
Drummond said female scientists have set up a private group in which to offer each other support and encouragement with their applications, including everything from offering reassurance about what should be in their cover letters and CVs to playlists to listen to while working on the application.
The principal message, she said, was that the job will be demanding, but that the astronauts would be offered the support they need to succeed, regardless of their personal circumstances.