The origins of the ESA astronaut programme predate the agency itself. In August 1973 the European Space Research Organisation, an ESA predecessor, signed a memorandum of understanding with NASA to produce a science laboratory that could be used aboard space shuttle flights. In exchange for supplying the laboratory, NASA would fly European astronauts aboard shuttle missions as payload specialists, a brand role aboard a spacecraft.
Payload specialists would be primarily focused on the payload itself. In Spacelab’s case, this included performing a number of experiments in the lab while the shuttle orbited Earth. A May 1978 edition of the ESA Bulletin
outlines the first mission of Spacelab and its two payload specialists (one American and one European). A total of 100 hours of payload specialist time would be devoted to Spacelab on this first mission, with the two payload specialists working in 10-hour rotating shifts over the 10-day mission.
In 1975 when the ESA was formed, the agency took over the Spacelab programme.
Looking for normally-fit scientists
In preparation for the first Spacelab flight, ESA initiated a search for its first class of astronauts on 28 March 1977. The agency stressed that it was looking for normally-fit scientists rather than super-fit astronauts, making this new breed of astronauts clearly distinct from what had come before. Candidates were required to be no older than 47 years, 150 to 190 cm in height, in good health, emotionally stable, and of high scientific/engineering ability.
More than 2,000 candidates applied to be one of the first European citizens to travel into space. Once the applications were received, ESA and each of its Member States went through their own selection procedure, with each being allowed to select no more than five candidates.
In September 1977, a total of 53 astronaut candidates were selected to progress to the next phase of the selection process. Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom all selected five astronaut candidates to progress to the next stage. Spain selected four, Ireland and Sweden two, and Denmark just one. ESA itself selected four astronaut candidates of its own.