PARIS (AP) — The European Space Agency is unveiling its newest astronaut recruits Wednesday, concluding its first recruitment drive in over a decade that aims to bring diversity to space travel.
Over 22,000 applicants came forward in the hiring push announced February of last year by Europe’s answer to NASA — including more women than ever and some 200 people with disabilities.
A final selection of just four to six people is being announced as Europe’s next astronauts at a Paris press conference, as well as also a reserve team of about 20. Finalist candidates have undergone intensive screening over the past year.
ESA specifically sought out people with physical disabilities, for a first-of-its-kind effort to determine what adaptations would be necessary to space stations to accommodate them.
To date, no major Western space agency has ever put a “para-astronaut” into space, according to the ESA.
Across the Atlantic, Houston is taking note. Dan Huot, a spokesman for NASA’s Johnson Space Center, home to the American agency’s astronaut corps, told the AP that “we at NASA are watching ESA’s para-astronaut selection process with great interest.”
Huot acknowledged that “NASA’s selection criteria currently remains the same” but said the agency is looking forward to working with the “new astronauts in the future” from partners such as the ESA.
NASA stressed that it has a safety-conscious process for vetting future astronauts who might be put in life-threatening situations.
“For maximum crew safety, NASA’s current requirements call for each crew member to be free of medical conditions that could either impair the person’s ability to participate in, or be aggravated by, spaceflight, as determined by NASA physicians,” Huot added.
NASA said future “assistive technology” might change the game for “some candidates” to meet their stringent safety requirements.
The ESA's groundbreaking hiring campaign didn’t specifically address ethnic diversity, but stressed the importance of “representing all parts of our society.”
The European agency received applications from all 25 member nations and associate members, though most came from traditional heavyweights France, Germany, Britain and Italy.
The two-day ESA council running Tuesday to Wednesday in Paris also saw France, Germany and Italy announcing an agreement Tuesday for a new-generation European space launcher project as part of apparent efforts to better compete with Elon Musk’s SpaceX and other rocket programs in the U.S. and China.