Astronauts - Dream of crossing the sky to search for the unknown

In the first part of this four-part series, Anadolu explores the path to becoming an astronaut, the qualifications that are sought after, and shares personal insights from space travelers, including interviews with both astronauts and astronaut trainers.

Yayınlanma: 24.08.2023 - 11:20
Astronauts - Dream of crossing the sky to search for the unknown
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Flying has always held an emotional allure for humans. The blend of fear and excitement associated with floating in space while gazing upon Earth has perennially captivated people's curiosity. Those who succeeded in taking this monumental leap crafted the vision of venturing deep into space, thereby giving birth to one of the world's most extravagant professions.

In the inaugural installment of a four-part series, Anadolu delves into the journey of becoming an astronaut, the prerequisites demanded, and the firsthand experiences of space travelers, featuring insights from both astronauts and astronaut trainers.

Once, the notion of peering beyond the sky remained a mere dream. However, propelled by technological advancements, the odyssey into the unknown has become a tangible yet formidable reality, one that comes at a considerable cost.

For those who harbor dreams of transcending the heavens in pursuit of cosmic enigmas, astronauthood presents an enticing vocation. Nonetheless, the path to becoming an astronaut is far from a straightforward response to the childhood query of "What do you want to be when you grow up?" To join the ranks of astronauts, one must first establish expertise in a foundational discipline.

Being an astronaut necessitates the cultivation of a robust mind and body, along with the acquisition of advanced interdisciplinary training. Space agencies meticulously sift through thousands of eligible candidates, selecting only the cream of the crop.

In the United States, the initial cadre of astronauts, dating back to 1959, was drawn from military ranks, primarily from individuals with engineering backgrounds and piloting experience.

The role of an astronaut entails proficiency in fundamental domains such as aviation and engineering, coupled with the capability to apply this knowledge effectively.

Both the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the European Space Agency (ESA) mandate that candidates possess a high-level education, particularly in disciplines such as engineering, biology, physics, computer systems, mathematics, or medicine. Furthermore, they favor candidates who have completed pilot training and accrued prior work experience in relevant fields.

Strong communication, determination, stress tolerance

In addition to technical qualifications, space agencies seek specific qualities in astronaut candidates, including leadership, determination, teamwork, aiding fellow team members, performing under pressure, and effective communication.

Given the strenuous physical demands and stressors astronauts encounter during missions, robust health and exceptional physical endurance are deemed imperative.

Speaking with Anadolu, Ruediger Seine, Head of the Astronaut Training Division at ESA, outlined the criteria for astronaut candidates who meet all technical requirements.

“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"

Seine finds it exceptionally intriguing to meet new astronauts, engage with highly talented individuals, and observe their conduct.

In November 2022, the European Space Agency (ESA) successfully recruited a new batch of astronauts, with five of them currently undergoing training. Seine disclosed that they have entered the second month of their training program.

"As an instructor, when your training efforts are valued, there's a profound sense of satisfaction. Furthermore, witnessing their progression from the initial stages to when astronauts are ultimately assigned to their missions and join us for their final training phase fills us with a deep sense of pride," Seine expressed.

Conversely, astronauts must excel in communication, given their frequent interactions with the public. Proficiency in English and a functional understanding of Russian are deemed essential. Furthermore, familiarity with American, Russian, and Japanese cultures plays a pivotal role in fostering strong relationships with international partners aboard the International Space Station (ISS).

Elimination processes

The NASA Astronaut Selection Board, composed of experienced astronauts well-versed in the demands of this profession, meticulously evaluates candidates' applications and assesses their competencies.

Candidates displaying the highest potential are invited to undergo an interview at the Johnson Space Center. Following initial interviews, half of the candidates are called back for a second round, from which new astronauts are ultimately chosen.

April Jordan, Manager of NASA's Astronaut Selection, underscores that the most captivating aspect of the screening process is encountering highly capable individuals. She adds that it's intriguing to observe candidates' reactions and witness how they navigate through the process.

NASA astronaut Edward Michael Fincke, who spent an impressive 381 days, 15 hours, and 11 minutes in space, highlights that the most challenging stage of the selection process is the rigorous health checks. He emphasizes that individuals must be in peak health to pursue a career in space.

Fincke conveyed to Anadolu that the interview process is equally compelling. During these interviews, candidates engage with experienced astronauts and senior officials to gauge their character and assess how they would function within a space team.

Retired astronaut Yamazaki Naoko of the Japanese Space Agency (JAXA) shared with Anadolu that, unlike the general conditions of astronaut selection in her country, JAXA extends opportunities to individuals without formal science training.

Yamazaki said that candidates at JAXA had limited preparation as they were unaware of the specific tests they would encounter during the qualification process. When the JAXA Space Center and its administration eventually provided guidance, the experience proved to be demanding and fiercely 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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