The space agency European Space Agency was in its words “blown away”. The reason being the record number of applicants, a whopping figure of 22,000, who wish and hope to become Europe’s next generation of space travellers. What is significant and heartening is the fact that this figure includes more women than ever and some 200 people who are specially abled.
During the course of releasing the results of a new recruitment drive aimed at more astronaut diversity, the ESA acknowledged on June 23, that the agency still needs to work on the aspect of gender balance. Women were just 24 per cent of the applicants, which is up from 15 per cent at the last hiring drive in 2008.
While the campaign to hire did not in specific mention or address ethnic diversity, it did touch on the issue of inclusivity by stressing on the importance of “representing all parts of our society.”
The space agency received applications from all 25 member nations and associate members. The most number of applicants came from traditional heavyweight countries France, Germany, Britain and Italy.
The ESA has for the first time specifically sought out people with physical disabilities, for a first-of-its-kind effort to determine what adaptations would be necessary to space stations to accommodate them.
The competition to go to space is intense and fierce. In all just four to six people will be chosen as Europe’s next astronauts, with a reserve team of about 20. The chosen candidates will have to undergo intensive screening over the next year, with a final decision expected in late 2022.
Talking about the number of applicants, the agency’s Director General Josef Aschbacher in a press conference said: “We’ve all been astonished.”
French astronaut Claudie Haigneré
He went on to add: “It’s a very strong expression of interest and enthusiasm that people have across Europe for space.”
Till now the European agency has sent only two women into space. They are Claudie Haigneré and Samantha Cristoforetti. Now it is eager that this number grows.
Even though 5,419 women applied for the new ESA program, according to David Parker, the agency’s director of human and robotic exploration observed: “The numbers also show there is more to be done to achieve gender balance in the space sector.”
At the global scale, 65 of the more than 560 people who have explored space were women, most of them Americans.