- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 24, 2008

PARIS — Wanted: European scientists and doctors ages 27 to 37, conversant in English and ideally Russian, for work in the universe.

Posted earlier this week, the announcement marks the first time in 15 years the Paris-based European Space Agency, or ESA, is hiring new astronauts to replace its dwindling, aging crew.

“Candidates should have a university degree in natural science, or they should be engineers or medical doctors and they should preferably have three years of postgraduate experience,” said space agency spokesman Franco Bonacina.

“Those with military or airline experience are also welcome, because some of the astronauts will have specific tasks — like piloting a shuttle,” Mr. Bonacina said, adding that the agency expected to receive tens of thousands of applications before its June 15 deadline.

The agency plans on making its final selection by mid-2009. The successful applicants next undergo 18 months of generalized training and another two years of mission-specific formation.

That means the new recruits would not step foot into a shuttle until 2013, at the earliest, beefing up the agency’s current staff of six astronauts.

The vacancies suggest the 34-year-old space agency has achieved solid footing after being dogged for years by budget cuts and program delays.

The solicitations mark only the third time the 17-nation space agency has hired astronauts since it debuted in 1974.

The last hiring time, in 1992, came as ESA was mired by budget constraints that eventually forced it to shelve a manned space shuttle Hermes, thus deepening doubts it could ever compete with the U.S. or the Russians.

Questions also loomed over whether European dreams of funding an ambitious orbiting laboratory would ever be realized.

But in February, the Columbus space laboratory rocketed into space as Europe’s most significant contribution to the International Space Station.

Costing roughly $2 billion, the laboratory is expected to carry out a host of physics, biology and human science experiments in the coming years, with astronauts carrying out instructions dispatched by scientists on the ground.

Europe is also crafting a counterpart to the U.S. Global Position System (GPS) — a satellite navigation system called Galileo.

Earlier this month, Russia announced it was teaming up with the ESA to build a spaceship to fly astronauts to the moon.

The first manned flight is planned for 2018, the Russian space agency Roskosmos reported on its Web site.

“This generation of astronauts will mainly still be concentrated on going and exploiting the International Space Station, which is our main future for the next 10 years to come,” said Mr. Bonacina, the ESA spokesman.

“But of course, the goal is also to start thinking about future missions — going back to the moon for instance and then on to Mars. That’s the goal all the space agencies around the world are aiming at.”

Not all European experts believe in manned missions. Not only are humans more expensive than robots, critics argue, but machines can be ordered to carry out far more risky — and possibly more interesting — experiments.

“The space shuttle launchings don’t make headlines,” astrophysics professor Martin Rees, who heads the London-based Royal Society, told the BBC last month.

“What actually makes the newspaper headlines are the marvelous pictures from the Hubble telescope and those of the surface of Mars and Jupiter and Titan — all obtained robotically.”

Arguing that Europeans should leave manned flight to the more affluent U.S. and Russian space agencies, he added: “We can be more effective in space if we focus all our budget on miniaturization, robotics, and fabricators and avoid manned space flight.”

ESA’s bid for new astronauts rekindles those arguments, but it is also drawing rebuttals. Both have received much play in the European news media.

“The main reason we send men into space is to explore,” French astronaut Jean-Francois Clervoy told Radio France. “It’s the destiny of humanity to see things on the ground. Robots are complementary.”



Click to Read More

Click to Hide