For the first time in 11 years, the European Space Agency (ESA) is searching for fresh astronauts to join their ranks. On 31st March 2021 applications will open on the ESA career website. The Agency plans to employ 4-6 people as full-time career astronauts along with a team of reserve astronauts, who could have the chance to fly to space in the future.
By design, the European Space Agency is a collaborative mission that aims to represent the diverse culture of its member states. But historically, they have struggled to employ women. Currently, there are seven active European astronauts. Italian astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti is the only woman.
Most astronauts are scientists; to be eligible to apply a candidate must at least have a Master’s degree in Natural Sciences, Medicine, Engineering, Maths or Computer Science. Unfortunately, the issue of gender diversity runs deep in these fields; most scientists are male. Here at Durham, women make up only 27% of Maths students and just 19% of Engineers.
A quick Google search will bring up any number of reasons why there aren’t more women in STEM. Perhaps the most cited is a lack of role models. As one of the most high-profile STEM careers, astronauts make great role models. This makes ESA’s appeal for more women a true step in the right direction of expanding gender diversity.
Along with this round of astronaut recruitment, the ESA is also launching a ground-breaking parastronaut feasibility project. This is the first project of its kind. Despite their physical disabilities, the pioneering parastronauts will be completely qualified to work in space exploration. Although they are not immediately guaranteed to be able to fly to space themselves, they will work with the ESA to one day make it possible.
It appears ESA is genuinely committed to this mission. Through collaboration with the International Paralympics Committee, they have identified a limited selection of disabilities eligible, including lower limb deficiencies or short stature. They have also committed an initial budget of €1M.
Our advancements in technology have taken humans to space, but ironically this same technology also holds many of us back.
In March 2019, Anne McClain and Christina Koch had to postpone their spacewalk because NASA couldn’t find two spacesuits to fit both women. It was set to be the first all-female spacewalk in history.
The parastronaut project will provide ESA with opportunities to find technical answers to new challenges. The hope is that with appropriate adaptations, parastronaut missions will be just as useful as any other mission.
Current ESA astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti, pointed out “We did not evolve to go to space. When it comes to space travel, we are all disabled”.
The future of space exploration is exciting, and these developments create interesting discussions about how we make future advancements representative of society as a whole. The Outer Space Treaty governs the actions of states while they are not on Earth. 111 countries are parties to the treaty. Article 1 states that “The exploration and use of outer space… shall be the province of all mankind”.
There is no doubt that a movement towards diversity has benefits for everyone. Varied viewpoints challenge our ideas and perceptions; they allow us to think in new ways. I am (maybe naïvely) optimistic about a utopian future for humanity. We must at least hope and try! Whether that is in space or on Earth, it is clear that the future must be inclusive of everyone. ESA’s diversity drive puts us one small step closer to that future.
Illustration: Anna Pycock