So how does a British kid get to space as an astronaut?

by | May 20, 2013 | ESA | 0 comments

In all the enthusiasm about Tim Peake’s planned spaceflight to the International Space Station in November 2015 (which might be thought of as a de facto “thank you” for the UK’s extra funding to ESA), and how it might promote the so called STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects in education, the question many schoolchildren and students will be asking is: which subjects and which career path do I need to do to get into space?

Strangely, the Minister for Universities and Science, the Rt Hon David Willetts MP made sure to note that he was NOT promoting STEM subjects as a way to become an astronaut.  Citing former Army Apache helicoptor and test pilot, Tim Peake, as an example, Willetts thought that more practical skills like flying/pilot training would be better for those wanting to be astronauts in future than having a science-based degree though he noted that STEM subjects would help those wanting to work in the space industry.

Willetts said while he was encouraging STEM subject uptake as being good for the space industry and the nation in general, he was averse to forcing school children and young adults from taking subjects at university that they did not really want to do. “I believe in people being free to choose the courses that most interest them.” said Willetts noting that arts subjects can lead to rewarding careers as well.

Peake agreed that the main key was to find what you are particularly passionate about and be as good at it as you can.   “There are astronauts who are school teachers.engineers, scientists, doctors, and pilots. Any career path can lead to to being an astronaut.”

While Peake’s mission running order is not yet decided, it is likely to have some element of microgravity research, especially as the UK is a recent contributor to ESA’s European Life and Physical Sciences in Space (ELIPS) microgravity research programme. There is also a chance that Peake will mount a spacewalk as part of his mission, having done neutral buoyancy tank training.  “I have done several months over in Houston, I went through what is known as the novice flow and skills flow which qualifies me in the EMU (Extravehicular Mobilty Unit) suit.” said Peake.  Peake is also qualified on the Russian Orlan suit as well. 

Tim Peak in initial EVA training in Neutral Buoyancy Tank at European Astronaut Centre, Cologne in 2010.  He later went to Houston to EVA qualify on the NASA spacesuit. Courtesy ESAPeake noted that he would like to stand on Mars on day even if his career may be over by the time that mankind achieves that aim.   More realisticallly, there is a genuine outside chance that Peake might one day visit a Chinese space station.  Thomas Rieter, ex-astronaut and now head of human spaceflight at ESA, noted that discussions with the Chinese over future cooperation had started but that they were at a very early stage.

 

Comment by David Todd:  While they may be right in noting that individuals tend to do best in subjects they enjoy most, Peake and Willetts are a bit wrong in not suggesting that a degree in a STEM subject would improve a candidate’s chances of selection as an astronaut.  For the best chance of becoming an orbital-class astronaut, the traditional routes into space still hold: either be an exemplary pilot, or be a science/medicine or engineering specialist (or at least have degree in these subjects), or, even better, both. Peake himself was an army officer and test pilot, but did actually gain a degree in Flight Dynamics as part of his training at the Empire Test Pilots School at Boscombe Down (which was actually awarded by the University of Portsmouth).

There is no evidence that lawyers, linguists, archeologists and historians are yet being made into astronauts in preference to those holding STEM expertise, though rich business types are making it – even if they have to pay for themselves via space tourism programmes.

One trend will probably happen however.  Rather than having specialised astronauts: pilots, EVA (Extra-vehicular Activity) experts, and scientific specialists, that the Space Shuttle tended to carry, future astronauts on long range missions to the Moon, asteroids and planets, will probably have to be “jacks of all trades” like Apollo astronauts, given their smaller crews.  That is, they will have to be skilled pilots, AND be experts at EVA, AND have good STEM subject degrees – with geology, engineering and medicine probably being the most useful.

While STEM knowledge, at least to a background degree level, will probably be essential, Willetts was right to hint that like becoming pilot would be a good route in.  Pilots, like divers, explorers and other “operational types”, apart from being fit and having practical and problem solving experience, also usually have the psychological make-up to be able to think quickly and calmly in dangerous situations.  This can mean the difference between mission success and failure and sometimes the difference between life and death.

 

About Seradata

Seradata produce the renowned SpaceTrak Launch & Satellite Database. Trusted by 100 of the world’s leading Space organisations, SpaceTrak is a fully queryable database used for market analysis, failure/risk assessment, spectrum analysis and space situational awareness (SSA).

For more information go to www.seradata.com/spacetrak

Related Articles

Airbus UK receives order for FORUM – the ninth ESA Earth Explorer mission

ESA has selected Airbus UK, Stevenage, to lead the FORUM construction project, according to an announcement on 28 June. The Read more

Astroscale gets funding to demo satellite removal

While the ELSa-D docking test mission is not going to plan in orbit due to thruster issues, its owner/developer Astroscale Read more

NASA Crew 3 (Endurance) departs the International Space Station (Updated)

On 5 May 2022 at 0320 GMT, the NASA Crew 3 (Endurance) mission astronauts closed the hatch between their Crew Read more

SpaceX launches four person crew mission to ISS, uses new Dragon capsule (Updated)

At 0752 GMT on 27 April a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carried the NASA Crew-4 mission to Low Earth Orbit Read more

ESA goes for Vega-C to launch Sentinel-1C radar observer and will replace hobbled Sentinel-1B radar sat (Corrected)

The European Space Agency (ESA) has signed a launch contract on behalf of the European Union with French satellite launch Read more

ESA confirms that Sentinel 1B’s radar is still knocked out by power issue

Sentinel-1B, a key Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) satellite of the ESA/EU Copernicus Earth observation and monitoring programme, has failed in Read more

Arianespace collects launch orders for eight Galileo satellites and for a pair of Italian PLATiNO satellites

Arianespace got the year off to a good start thanks to an announcement by the European Space Agency (ESA) and Read more

To the relief of many, NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope is launched successfully by Ariane 5

European launch provider Arianespace successfully launched an Ariane 5 ECA vehicle from Kourou Space Centre, French Guiana, at 1220 GMT Read more

Categories

Archives