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So what is the right stuff?

International Space Station with Earth behind it
The eventual workplace of the successful recruits


By Finlo Rohrer
BBC News Magazine

The European Space Agency is doing its first major trawl for recruits for more than a decade. An expected 50,000 applicants will be whittled down to four astronauts destined to live on the International Space Station. What are they looking for?

Being an astronaut is the opposite of being a learner driver. The learner trains a few days for many years of driving. The astronaut can train for years for a few days in space.

Since the beginning of space travel, people have asked themselves this question: what do you have to be like to be an astronaut?

YOUTH

The first thing needed is to be young. Although astronauts can continue through their 50s, Esa will only take on new candidates between the ages of 27 and 37. But at the same time as the candidates must be young, they must also have experienced real life. Esa demands three years of experience in the relevant field.

SCIENTIFICALLY MINDED AND TICK OTHER BOXES

To be an Esa astronaut you must have a degree, and that degree must typically be in either engineering, science, medicine or maths. Being a qualified pilot is a definite plus.

Buzz Aldrin walks on the moon
The right stuff is learned, says Buzz Aldrin

Candidates must also be able to speak English, the main language in space travel, and having Russian is also an advantage.

There used to be a big obstacle for British candidates. The UK, although a member of Esa, does not contribute to its manned spaceflight programme. The agency insists that this year there will be no political considerations; the best four candidates from the 17 member nations will be picked.

PATIENCE

Every astronaut must embody patience itself.

Gerhard Thiele was recruited as an astronaut by Esa in 1987. He didn't go into space until 2000. Now he is head of the Astronauts Division at the European Astronaut Centre and a key figure in picking the next generation.

GOT WHAT IT TAKES?
Entries open 19 May
And close 15 June
Selection finishes summer 2009
First of these recruits in space five years later
Minimum starting salary 4,280 euros a month, depending on qualifications

"It's like marathon running - you don't just wait until the day comes and go. You have a programme, you have trained for it."

The selection process to find the four astronauts and four replacements will last a year and will feature a barrage of medical and psychological measurement before candidates are whittled down to 100 to face more extensive medical testing. Forty of those will go in front of an Esa board in the final selection.

And the bare minimum of delay any recruit will face before actually flying off into space is five years. Basic training lasts 18 months, and is followed by advanced training of two years, which focuses on learning every system connected with the ISS, even leaving the candidate able to improvise as a plumber or electrician in an emergency.

Then a candidate is eligible for selection for a mission which would involve a further one and a half years of training.

BRAVERY

Since Tom Wolfe's book The Right Stuff and Philip Kaufman's film of the same name, there has been an emphasis in the popular imagination on the fearlessness of astronauts. There have been two shuttle disasters and various other incidents in which people have lost their lives.

A camera is repaired on an ESA mission
A can-do attitude helps

The original astronauts were military pilots who had learned to accept the possibility of death, and had the indefinable quality that allowed them to function well at the same time. But not everybody has had a strong belief that there is an "ineffable right stuff".

Writing in the New York Times after the Columbia disaster in 2003, Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin said: "I don't think anybody - astronauts or otherwise - is born with some kind of right stuff. It's something you work into."

And the emphasis placed at both Nasa and Esa is not on the lone hero.

"Bravery is one aspect we mitigate all the risk but it isn't 100% safe," says Duane Ross, manager for astronaut candidate selection and training at Nasa. "History shows that. But we don't want daredevils, people who will want to take unnecessary risks."

TEAMWORK

"We are not interested in the right stuff, but the right staff," Thiele says. In other words, someone who can function well with a team of anything up to 300 mission controllers, scientists, engineers and officials.

European Space Agency control room in France
Just part of the team on the ground

"What we are looking for is people able to work in a team," Thiele explains.

"In a crisis situation you have to work together. You can't start a long debate. You might have two seconds to react and you don't have the time to seek everyone's agreement in your action."

And not every astronaut is a genius.

"I've seen people in that group who I said to 'why did you become an astronaut, you should have become a scientist and you would have won the Nobel prize?' [But] I don't know whether all of them are brilliant. They are very dedicated, motivated high achievers."

PREPARED FOR STRANGE LIFESTYLE

On the short shuttle missions the work is very intense - many hours a day for a short time period. On the longer Esa missions to the space station, astronauts have to pace themselves.

They do a nominal 40-hour week with two hours a day of exercise included, to keep muscle and bone density, particularly in the legs, which are little used.

Thiele says, unsurprisingly, that most astronauts find the weightlessness the strangest thing in space, but get used to it after three or four days.

PSYCHOLOGICALLY SOUND

"A lot depends on you doing your job in space," says Thiele. "Eleven days, 15 hours a day without a mistake? No-one can do that."

Astronaut Thomas Reiter
There is some free time

So one of the major parts of being an astronaut is being able to accept frustration, either caused by mistakes of your own making, or circumstances beyond your control.

The sheer will to succeed must not lead you into problems when things do not go your way, says Dr Lawrence Palinkas, who has studied the psychological selection of both astronauts and polar scientists.

"One not only has to be highly motivated to make it through selection and the training, but also have the psychological flexibility to change course when circumstances preclude you from conducting planned experiments."

Ross says that the fundamental psychological quality needed is the ability to be nice and get along with team members on a long journey.

Anybody who is the life of the party, a room-dominating presence, may not be the type the space agencies are looking for, says Palinkas.

"A socially competent individual who has a strong need for social interaction may not do so well. In confinement, one of the biggest challenges is freeing personal space."

And because Esa is selecting for the ISS and missions of six months, the recruits will be scrutinised even more closely than those going on a short shuttle mission.

Claustrophobics, or those seen as unlikely to cope with separation from family and friends, will not make the cut.

Mir space station in 1996
Mir space station, abandoned in 1999

Palinkas says: "During the longer duration missions, say the three to six months on the International Space Station or aboard Mir, there have been isolated instances of individuals who either experienced depressed mood significant enough that it merited intervention, or individuals who because they were so fatigued or stressed shouldn't have performed as they did.

"On Mir there was one incident when a supply rocket crashed into the space station. In a subsequent evaluation it was concluded the astronauts on board weren't performing at 100% capacity, they couldn't handle the complex manoeuvres needed."

For those who are successful something magnificent awaits - the chance to conduct experiments in space, and to look back at the Earth.

"It is a marvellous planet that comes by now and then," says Thiele. "During 'day time' it's a beautiful and splendid sight. If you look at it at night you may see the lightning over Africa or the coastline of Australia."


Below is a selection of your comments.

I remember the ESA's first advertisement for astronauts appearing in the New Scientist in 1977! I was just going to university, and my passion for space travel no doubt influenced my choice of PhD topic 3 years later - the response of plants to gravity. An experiment went on the Shuttle but I didn't go with it alas. And now I'm too old.
Megan, Cheshire UK

What a pity the cut off age is 37. Some of us who are very fit with oodles of life experience and know who we are and what we are about - could be an asset to the team.
Mazz, Truro

The opportunity to go into space is a dream for anyone like me and many of the people I work with (in a satellite enginnering company in the UK), who have been facinated by space most of their lives. The chances of a successful application are tiny, but there's noting lost in applying and if one of the successful astronauts was british it would be a huge boost for the british space industry. This is a very exciting opportunity
Liz, Stevenage

One group of people who could easily cope with the conditions outlined in your article are those currently working in the offshore oil & gas industry as commercial saturation divers. Have to fit in and work as a team. Used to working in isolation in an environment that is 100% hostile. Used to working "weightless" mid-water. Have a thorough knowledge of life support systems.
Bill, Stavanger/Norway

Sounds a doddle to me! Most jobs require all that and a lot more. I am used to prioritising twenty different demands and undertaking numerous tasks whilst orbiting around my workplace at 1000 miles per hour. Bring it on!
Malcolm Fearn, London England

Ah well, there goes another childhood ambition, I'm too old now. If they start recuiting 50+ year olds let me know.
Chris, Epsom

If these are earth's best make sure they come back safely please. We'll need them in future.
Dan, Pietermaritzburg, South Africa

First grade teachers certainly have some of the qualities needed.
Teacher Gerald, Taichung Taiwan ROC

One thing not mentioned here is physiology. You can have all the ability in the world but if for example you have low blood pressure and are prone to fainting then you won't make it into space.
John Airey, Peterborough, UK

I have been very keen on becoming an astronaut since childhood. I went into science (physics) and medicine instead. Like Megan, I started Uni in 1977. I am fit, experienced...but I've missed the boat(or the spaceship) because of my age. Any chances or alternatives for "chronologically mature" people, please? Thanks.
Nuria, London

How do I apply? Thanks
Gareth Williams, London




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