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At Last, A European Astronaut Program

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At Last, A European Astronaut Program

Space

At Last, A European Astronaut Program

At Last, A European Astronaut Program

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European Space Agency

A European Space Agency launcher in French Guyana prepares for liftoff. Stephane Corvaja/ESA via Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption Stephane Corvaja/ESA via Getty Images

The European Space Agency is accepting open applications for its inaugural class. Frank Danesy oversees Human Resources for the European Space Agency and is heading up the astronaut recruitment teams.

RACHEL MARTIN, host:

The European Space Agency is looking for four people with the right stuff. For the first time in 16 years, the agency is holding an open recruiting drive for astronauts. They started taking applications a week ago today. So, what does it take in this day and age to make your astronaut job application stand out from the rest? Frank Danesy oversees H.R. for the European Space Agency, and he's heading up the astronaut-recruitment team. He is on the phone from the agency's operation center in Germany. Hi, Frank. Thanks for being here.

Mr. FRANK DANESY (Human Resources, European Space Agency): Well, Tricia, how are you?

MARTIN: Tricia is our editor, who, sadly, is not here today. She got the day off. But I'm Rachel.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DANESY: OK. Beg your pardon, Rachel.

MARTIN: That's OK.

Mr. DANESY: Good morning.

MARTIN: Frank, how...

Mr. DANESY: So sorry.

MARTIN: That's OK. How many applications have you got for this, Frank?

Mr. DANESY: Well, so we've only come out with the vacancy notice about - oh, a bit under a week ago, and yeah, we're already up to about 3,000 now, and the numbers are rising, so there's obviously a lot of interest.

MARTIN: So how do you differentiate the weak from the chaff in this kind of process?

Mr. DANESY: Well...

MARTIN: What makes an application stand out, in other words?

Mr. DANESY: Sure. I mean, there's a certain profile that we're looking for in terms of academic background, professional experience and personality profile. As far as the academic aspect is concerned, we're primarily looking for people who have degrees in either natural sciences, engineering, medicine or math, or people who have high-level qualifications as pilots. So we're talking about test pilots, or people who have super, high-performance flight time in jet aircraft.

MARTIN: So you can be someone who has never been an astronaut, but if you - if you're a licensed pilot, and you want to become an astronaut, you can just do that?

Mr. DANESY: Well, those would be some of the ingredients. I mean, in fact, very few people who are initially hired as astronauts were in a similar sort of role prior to being hired. So we're really working on the basis that for new recruits who'll not actually have astronaut experience.

MARTIN: Hm. So, when the space race began, the first American astronauts, they were this kind of cowboy persona, hyper competitive, type-A, very overachieving, individualistic. That was a different era, though. That was a time when you kind of needed a little bit of ego, hubris, as the space race was getting started. Now that a lot what astronauts do involves getting along in a kind of teamwork environments, a lot of collaboration with other astronauts in really close quarters for months at a time, what kind of personality types do you look for?

Mr. DANESY: Right. You're absolutely right. I mean, the - during the early years of the space race, it was a completely different profile, but then flying in space was also a completely different activity than it is today. Today, a lot of the focus is on conducting research in space. It - the focus is on working together with other astronauts to achieve certain targets.

And so what we're looking for are people who have very strong reasoning skills, who are stress-resistant, because working in space environment, of course, does have its challenges. People who are highly motivated, who are flexible, gregarious, and very importantly, people who have strong team skills, both in terms of being a member of the team, but also, depending on what the assignment is, to act as leader of a team.

MARTIN: So these are the worker bees, in essence. Have we seen the door close on astronauts whose missions that would attract those Lewis-and-Clark personalities, those kind of adventurers, or will we see some of that still?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DANESY: Well, I think that in every astronaut - also today, you'll still find a trace of that, and perhaps even more than a trace, but today, of course, the focus is a lot more on research, actually conducting research, than it was 30 or 40 years ago.

MARTIN: Let's talk about what these particular astronauts will be doing. Their - primarily, the European Space Agency puts its astronauts onto the International Space Station, right?

Mr. DANESY: That's right, exactly.

MARTIN: And what kind of - what are their duties up there? What are their specific missions likely to be?

Mr. DANESY: Well, they can vary. I mean, one set of activities has to do with setting up hardware. We recently took into operation the Columbus Orbital Facility, the laboratory that is attached to the International Space Station, and that was wholly manufactured, developed and manufactured in Europe. And so, the astronauts who went up with Columbus were responsible for actually attaching the spacecraft, this laboratory, and making sure that it does all the things that it's supposed to do.

But other missions require the astronauts to conduct experiments in the space station, or sometimes, also on the shuttle, and those experiments can be in a variety of areas. I mean, they can be focused on flight, on human physiology. They can be focused on biology, chemistry, physics, and this is why I felt it was so important that astronauts are as versatile as they are, because they really have to be able to conduct any of these experiments and understand reasonably well what it is that they're doing.

MARTIN: Now, Frank, how much does an astronaut make this - these days?

Mr. DANESY: Well, that varies somewhat, but, in euros - I'd have to do a quick calculation to see what it would be in dollars...

MARTIN: Basically, no dollars is what that means.

Mr. DANESY: All right. We'd be talking about something in the ballpark of base, starting pay, not including allowances, around four, four and a half thousand euros a month, and that can climb up to seven, seven and a half thousand euros a month, after a certain level of seniority or experience of length.

MARTIN: Which is like 5,000 bucks. That's - you know, it's not too shabby. It's not a lot, though. It's not kind of - it's not how much I would assume that people who were doing that kind of work would make. I feel that those people are these kind of upper-echelon, heroic geniuses, that should get paid a lot more, but...

Mr. DANESY: Mm hm. OK.

MARTIN: It's just my two cents. Let's talk about what this process is like. I would think that the European Space Agency would have a designative recruiting program, reaching into the university system, the military. Where are you looking for these folks? This is an open application system.

Mr. DANESY: Well, you already touched on two important ones. The third would be in industry, particularly people there who have experience in either conducting research or who work as test pilots. The - we've been in the midst of a communications campaign that has lasted the last seven weeks or so. Ever since we actually flew the ATV to the International Space Station - that is to say, the automated transfer vehicle, which is sort of a transport ship, and so since then, we've been going out into the public. We've been in the media. We've been informing the public about the possibility of applying as an astronaut.

MARTIN: Now, I have to say, Frank, you sound like you have an American accent. Do you?

Mr. DANESY: So you're close. I have a Canadian accent.

MARTIN: Oh, you're Canadian, North American.

Mr. DANESY: That's right.

MARTIN: But, I guess my last question for you would be, is there a lot of collaboration between NASA and the European Space Agency?

Mr. DANESY: Oh, absolutely, absolutely. I mean, if you look at the work that we are doing together in the area of human space flight, the International Space Station, that's only one. There is a lot of collaboration going on in the area of space science, astronomy, astrophysics, planetary science. So, no, the relationship between NASA and the European Space Agency, has been a very strong and very friendly one for decades now.

MARTIN: Well, thank you very much. Frank Danesy oversees human resources for the European Space Agency. Hey, aspiring astronauts, get your applications in. The ESA is looking for a few good folks. Hey, Frank, thanks so much for being with us. We appreciate it.

Mr. DANESY: The pleasure is mine. Thank you, Rachel.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: Stay with us. Death Cab for Cutie coming up next on the BPP from NPR.

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