Friday, 19 April 2024

Behind the scenes of ESA’s Astronaut selection

On the 23 November 2022, at the end of a successful Council at Ministerial level, ESA’s Director General, Joseph Aschbacher, announced the new class of ESA astronauts at the Grand Palais Éphémère in Paris. 17 new astronaut candidates were on stage: five career astronauts, 11 members of an astronaut reserve and one an astronaut with a disability who has been selected for a feasibility project.

A few months have passed since the exciting news of ESA’s new astronaut candidates being announced, giving us members of the selection board some time to reflect on the fascinating year we’ve had. It was actually more than a year, a complicated and highly confidential process, with over 22.000 Europeans applying for the astronaut positions when the call was made in March 2022.

This highly competitive process, for which even just meeting the initial criteria to apply was something to be proud of, consisted of 6 different stages.
After an intensive screening phase, based on documents submitted, the application form and the screening questionnaire, the first 1361 successful candidates were invited to a full day of cognitive, technical, motor coordination and personality tests.
“Only” about 400 passed this selection and moved to the next step: an assessment center consisting of additional psychometric tests, individual and group exercises, as well as practical tests. This phase lasted more than six months and only during summer the successful applicants received the long-sought invitation to the medical tests. Easy to imagine, a medical selection to assess both physical and psychological conditions in view of long-duration astronaut missions was a crucial moment, which resulted in a bit more than 50 applicants remaining, who were invited to a panel interview with ESA board members. But this was not yet the end!

The last phase was reached only by 25 highly skilled professionals: the final interview with the ESA Director General.

All candidates who made it to the final stages were exceptional and have amazing backgrounds. It was not an easy choice, but of course we knew that only a few of them could be hired and become ‘career astronauts ’. The remaining candidates had the possibility to join the reserve and keep a link with ESA. This is a unique opportunity and we’re very happy to be able to offer this option for the first time.
The last phase was reached only by 25 highly skilled professionals”
The ESA Astronaut selection has been a very long journey for the candidates who had to complete each phase of the process and then patiently wait, for weeks if not months, for the outcome, before knowing if they were invited to the next step. It was very interesting to see that most of the candidates, especially the ones moving ahead during the process, created a real community. They were exchanging information, experiences and sometimes venting out the pressure while they were waiting for the outcome of a specific step. Candidates stayed in the same hotel when travelling for the selection and very soon started socializing. This also helped them to release some stress and share their experiences.
As you may well imagine, the ESA Astronaut selection team was extremely busy. And what was not seen behind the scenes was the tremendous team effort that took place, which started many months before the publication of the two vacancy notices and involved several colleagues across ESA, as well as external partners. All in all, more than 100 colleagues made this journey possible.
With such a high number of applicants the organization of such a monumental task was tremendous.
We had to plan hard, splitting the process into sub-parts (mainly linked to each stage) and each of them was again carefully planned. Constant meetings were required to monitor how the work was progressing and to make sure that we could take timely adaptations if required.
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With such a long and complex process, we had to ensure that each stage would work as the element of a perfect mechanism, maintaining high standards and at the same time meeting the deadlines we set for ourselves. Among all the variables, let’s not forget that most of the process took place during difficult COVID times, where travel restrictions could have heavily impacted the overall campaign, and that the selection had to be finished in time for the announcement after the Ministerial Council. This was without any doubt the most difficult part of the process.
But we made it. Two days before the announcement, the final 17 candidates were all in a hotel around Paris where they received their media training, information from ESA HR and had the opportunity to meet the 2008 class of astronauts.
It was a great moment to see them all together and it was an amazing opportunity to get to know them a bit better, for the first time not in a formal interview environment. The atmosphere was funny and friendly, despite the stress of the approaching outcome which we communicated to them only a few hours before they appeared on stage.
Seeing them on the 23 November finally able to present themselves in front of an audience filled with Ministers and the press was for sure a standout moment for me and all the colleagues who have contributed to this unique recruitment campaign. A true reward for our work and dedication.
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