Better an aviation or astronautics career

How, please, do you become an astronaut?

Astronauts worldwide


In general, astronauts are space travelers. But not all space travel nations call them that. Astronauts are only spoken of in western countries. The former Eastern Bloc countries call them cosmonauts and the Chinese have coined the word taikonauts for them. In the past, France even called its space travelers “Spationauts”, but the term “astronauts” has become common there too. Conceptually, in today's Internet age there seem to be only astronauts.


Anyone who wants to become an astronaut can only do so as an official member of a state that actively pursues space travel. A citizen of a European country cannot become a NASA astronaut as long as he is not also a US citizen. The popular and information-rich NASA Selection Pages [1] are therefore interesting but irrelevant to the question: How do I become an astronaut as a European citizen? Europe is unique in the world when it comes to astronauts, and that makes the answer to our initial question a bit complicated. But we will see that everything is not so difficult after all, if you know the background.

Astronauts in Europe

First of all, you should know what kind of astronauts there are in Europe. ESA, the European Space Agency, has its own corps of astronauts, the European astronauts [2]. There are currently (Feb 2004) 15 active ESA astronauts - all men! As Germans, they include: Thomas Reiter, Hans Schlegel, Gerhard Thiele and Reinhold Ewald. Ulf Merbold, probably the best-known German astronaut, has since retired from this corps as an active member. By 1998 every major European country had national astronauts. In a European Council of Ministers decision, the national astronauts of all European countries were then abolished and transferred to the ESA astronaut corps - at least those who wanted that.

What does this mean for future selections? Until 1998, each European country carried out tests of its own to select national astronauts. Those who did best could then also apply for ESA, which, however, carried out its own tests again. It seems like this two-step process will be done the same next time around. However, it cannot be ruled out that the ESA will then directly carry out a tender and selection within the European states. It has not yet been decided whether the path will go through the individual states or not.

When is the next selection coming?

When the next selection comes depends very much on two factors: the number and age of current ESA astronauts and future needs. With the currently 15 active astronauts, ESA has too many astronauts. However, many ESA astronauts (including all German astronauts) are relatively old today; they were selected back in the late 1980s. Astronauts do not have an expiration date, but they are of the ideal working age. They are best suited for flight missions between the ages of 35 and 50. In the near future, ESA will not be able to avoid accepting and training new young astronaut candidates for the ISS.

What about the demand? The first flights to the European research module COF of the ISS will be made by today's experienced ESA astronauts. Since April 2001 an international crew consisting of four ESA astronauts (Pedro Duque, Leopold Eyharts, Paolo Nespoli and Thomas Reiter), four Japanese (Takao Doi, Koichi Wakata, Satoshi Furukawa and Aikihido Hoshide) from NASDA and two NASA astronauts ( Nicole Passonno Stott and Stephanie D. Wilson) on ISS missions. However, since the Columbia disaster on February 1, 2003, this training has stalled.

The first European astronauts will begin their work in space when the COF starts operating (it is expected in 2006). However, regular does not necessarily mean a lot of flight opportunities. As long as NASA boss Sean O'Keefe only allows three astronauts on the ISS at the same time to reduce costs (instead of seven as planned, currently only two astronauts due to the failure of the shuttle fleet), the flight opportunities for ESA science astronauts will be very sparse with that of course also the scientific output.

In the long term, the flight experience of the current astronauts and that of the international ISS crew must be transferred to younger astronauts, and for this ESA needs a new generation of astronauts. So as soon as scientific research on board the ISS begins for Europeans in 2006, I expect the next ESA call for tenders. This is how ESA's announcement on its web page [3] “How to become an Astronaut?” Can be understood that it does not want to carry out a new selection before 2005/2006.

Which degree for an astronaut career?


First of all: To become an astronaut, a degree in aerospace engineering is a very good, but not absolutely necessary, requirement. On the other hand, a Germanist would be out of place. What is needed up to now and in the future are young people who have dedicated themselves to the natural sciences, medicine or technology. As with the previous German or European shuttle or MIR missions, scientific experiments will be carried out in the COF, and you not only have to know, but also understand what you are doing. A university degree in chemistry, biology, medicine, physics or engineering is ideal for applications. But candidates from related subjects also have a good chance. My former colleague Renate Brümmer was a meteorologist when she was selected. You should therefore simply study the subject that suits you best. It is important, however, that you should be really good in your subject, or even better, very good. By the way, airplane pilots as candidates will hardly be wanted any more. Only the commander, the shuttle pilot and the Soyuz commanders have to meet these requirements. But that's all firmly in American and Russian hands, and since ESA abandoned its plans for its own HERMES shuttle many years ago, there is no longer any need for European astronaut pilots.

The selection requirements


What are the other requirements to become an astronaut? If you want to know all the details, including examples of test tasks, you should take a look at my book “Around the Earth in 90 Minutes” [4]. For all those who just want to get an overview, go to the corresponding ESA web page [5] or download the lecture script “Astronaut selection” from this web page, which is part of my lecture “Manned Space Travel”.

Here is a short summary of the basic requirements, which are asked using a questionnaire that is sent to each applicant when selecting: scientific work experience, excellent knowledge of English and, if possible, another foreign language, good physical and mental condition, perfect health of the ancestors, height between 153 and 190 cm, not older than 37 years, European citizenship (ESA member country). Incidentally, just like the famous seals in your teeth, it is an old myth that you are not allowed to wear glasses. Eye defects of up to two diopters are permitted and practically every astronaut has tooth inlays. And good physical condition does not mean, as many believe, that you have to be a competitive athlete as much as possible. On the contrary, too many muscles are detrimental to astronauts. You hardly need them in weightlessness anyway. In addition, they only consume oxygen unnecessarily there, and an enlarged heart usually causes cardiac arrhythmias when underloaded. The only thing that really matters is a good cycle, which is tested in a centrifuge. Accelerations of up to 8g can be endured while lying down.

In any case, excellent physical performance does not play an important role in the further selection tests. The really critical stumbling blocks are the tough psychological tests, which deal with mathematical and logical thinking, memory, spatial orientation, psychomotor coordination and dexterity and, most importantly, the ability to handle multiple stresses. Those who have passed these tests will only fail the subsequent final medical tests with an empirical probability of 50 percent. If you have also passed the medical tests, you will not automatically become an astronaut. One hurdle, which unfortunately cannot be influenced in the slightest, is yet to come: the national proportional representation. Then MPs of the federal states argue with representatives of the ESA about how many astronauts from their country should be taken. This unrewarding endeavor does no justice to an individual's abilities, and I have seen quite a few excellent applicants who, in my opinion, were born astronauts and still failed this final hurdle.