— European Space Agency (ESA) on May 20 named six new members of its astronaut corps, including a British national who was selected despite his government’s longstanding refusal to take part in ‘s manned spaceflight program.
The new astronauts — two Italians and one each from , in addition to — were selected from a group of 8,413 applicants who passed an initial medical exam. They will begin ESA’s 18- month training course in September and in principle could be ready for flights starting in 2013, according to ESA officials.
The astronauts were presented at ESA headquarters here before a thicket of television cameras that is rare for any event at ESA, lending credence to ESA Director-General Jean-Jacques Dordain’s repeated statements that, more than 30 years after the U.S. Apollo program, the human-interest appeal of astronauts still surpasses other things done by even the most successful space agencies.
In ‘s case, the human- interest aspect may be even greater because it is far from certain whether any of these newly named astronauts will ever fly in space.
SimonettaDiPippo, ESA’s director of human spaceflight, said agency program managers created no illusions about the rarity of flight opportunities throughout the yearlong selection process.
“We made it clear to them at every occasion that it could be that, in the end, they don’t fly,” DiPippo said in an interview. “On the other hand, we will be trying very hard in the coming years to increase the number of flight opportunities. And the fact is, if there is an international lunar mission in 2025, one of these people could be on that flight.”
ESA astronaut Jean-Francois Clervoy, who has flown on three space shuttle missions, acknowledged the limited opportunities but said the attraction of spaceflight for people like him was more than enough to overcome the frustrations of waiting for an opening. “It’s true: They may need to wait as long as 10 to 15 years,” Clervoy said in an interview. “But it’s worth it.”
ESA has an 8.3 percent share of the resources of the international space station and has secured, in a barter agreement with NASA, the right to send one European astronaut to the station on a six-month mission every two years.
ESA officials assume that the space station partners will agree to keep the orbiting outpost operational to 2020 — a commitment that has not yet been made, especially by NASA, which effectively serves as the station’s prime contractor.
Addressing the press briefing, Dordain said that between 2013 and 2020 ESA has a guaranteed four flight opportunities to the station, each for six-month stays. In addition, the Italian Space Agency has struck a bilateral accord with NASA to send an astronaut to the station once every five years — equivalent to three flights by 2020.
These seven flight opportunities will be distributed among an ESA astronaut corps that today counts 14 members, including the new recruits.
ESA officials said the Italian flights will be reserved for Italian astronauts. However, and ESA have left open the possibility that an Italian slot could be filled by a non-Italian ESA astronaut in exchange for a guaranteed slot for an Italian on an ESA flight, they said.
Michel Tognini, head of the European Astronaut Centre in Cologne, Germany, and a veteran of one Russian Soyuz flight to Russia’s Mir space station and one six- day shuttle flight to deploy a science satellite, both in the 1990s, said the current recruits are already in a better position to fly than was his generation of European astronauts.
“When I flew we had nothing” in the way of programs that would guarantee at least some flights of Europeans, Tognini said during the press briefing. “Today there is the international space station that is flying, and we have the facility and the ATV. These people know their future.”
‘s habitable laboratory, now attached to the international space station. ATV, the Automated Transfer Vehicle, is an unmanned cargo vessel designed to carry fuel and supplies to the station every 18 months or so as part of a broader NASA-ESA barter arrangement.
, together are financing about 75 percent of ESA’s total contribution to the space station. , which has long held that astronaut programs are not worth what they cost, is not participating in any of ESA’s human spaceflight programs.
When it came time to select astronauts, the British position presented ESA with a dilemma. ESA astronauts are ESA employees, and the agency opens employment opportunities to citizens from all 18 of its member states because all contribute to the agency’s general administration and management costs.
But astronauts are dedicated to only one ESA department — human spaceflight — that is financed from voluntary contributions. This would have given ESA the right to exclude British candidates.
In the end, DiPippo said, the British candidate was among the best, and ESA determined that his selection could provide an incentive to the British government to initiate a contribution to the manned-spaceflight program, or to make some other, compensating contribution to another ESA department.
DiPippo and Dordain said the British government has made no promise, informal or otherwise, that it would review its space station policy as a result of the selection of a British astronaut. In a May 20 statement applauding the selection, Lord Drayson, ‘s science minister, noted that the appointment “is an ESA staff post, fully funded by ESA.”