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A European astronaut story

Europe in Space
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A European astronaut story
This week, ESA will be announcing its newest class of astronauts. It will be only the third time in the agency’s history that a new class of European astronauts has been chosen. To commemorate this, I endeavored to take a look at the origins of the ESA astronaut, the selection of the first class, and the first ESA astronaut to fly into space.
Credit: ESA–Olivier Pâques
Credit: ESA–Olivier Pâques
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.
The candidates were then put through a series of four panels that were defined by experts from ESA Member States. The first covered fields of technology and eliminated 27 candidates. The second was a science panel that eliminated 14 candidates. Medical and physiological testing then followed, eliminating one more candidate. Finally, the fourth panel was in front of the Spacelab board that recommended four preferred candidates to then ESA Director General Roy Gibson from the United Kingdom for approval.
Ulf Merbold from Germany, Wubbo Ockels from the Netherlands, Franco Malerbra from Italy, and Claudie Nicollier from Switzerland were introduced to the public at a press conference in Paris on 22 December 1977.
Credit: ESA
Credit: ESA
Following their selection, the four finalists were sent to NASA’s Johnson Space Center to receive a battery of tests to ensure they were fit for flight aboard the space shuttle. All four candidates were subsequently certified as suitable for flight.
On 18 May 1978, Ulf Merbold, Wubbo Ockels, and Claudie Nicollier became the first ESA astronaut class.
There can only be one
Following the selection of the first ESA astronaut class in 1978, Ulf Merbold, Wubbo Ockels, and Claude Nicollier began training for the first Spacelab mission which was to be launched in 1983.
In 1980 following an initial period of evaluation, Nicollier was taken out of the running to become the first ESA astronaut in space. It’s not entirely clear why this decision was made. However, once he was removed from contention, Ockels and Merbold spent the next two years training together alongside their NASA counterparts at the Marshall Spaceflight Center, Johnson Space Center, and SPICE facilities in Europe.
In September 1982, Ulf Merbold was selected as the ESA payload specialist and Byron Lichtenberg as the NASA payload specialist for STS-9. During an interview for the 116th ESA Bulletin in 2003, Merbold describe how this moment had been bitter-sweet for him.
“That was a situation of mixed feelings - Wubbo and I were close friends, we had been working together for two years in Huntsville, Alabama and at the end of the training in the Marshall Spaceflight Center, we knew that only one of us could be the first. In the end, the investigators working with the group had to take the decision between the two of us, and their recommendation was in my favour. Of course, I was happy, but I would have preferred to have the opportunity to share the experience with him.”
A launch to remember
The launch of STS-9 had initially been slated for late October 1983. However, SRB nozzle issues forced officials to push back the launch date. Luckily, Merbold and the crew wouldn’t have to wait long.
On 28 November 1983, Merbold became the first ESA astronaut in space and the first European citizen to fly aboard the Shuttle. He was seated on the mid-deck of Columbia next to his fellow payload specialist Lichtenberg.
Credit: NASA
Credit: NASA
The crew spent just over 10 days in space. More than 70 experiments were performed aboard Spacelab in a microgravity environment. This included a variety of fields including Astronomy, Solar Physics, Space Plasma Physics, Earth Observation, Material Science, and Life Sciences.
The mission was not without mishaps. During reentry, computer problems and a hydrazine leak posed a significant risk to crew’s safety. Luckily, the shuttle touched down safely on 8 December 1983 concluding an otherwise highly successful first outing for Spacelab.
Of his STS-9 experience, Merbold had this to say: “Spaceflight is intensely emotional - but it is also intensely intellectual.” “Next to all the other impressions, the views are what make an astronaut’s life an incredible experience. Earth is incredibly beautiful.”
And his impression of Spacelab: “Everyone involved in the first Spacelab flight can be proud of their work. Spacelab was developed and built by ESA as a platform that upgraded the Shuttle from a transporter to a scientific laboratory, and it had worked flawlessly.”
Despite being no less important, especially in a European context, Merbold is never mentioned alongside Gagarin, Shepard, and Armstrong. I’ve always thought that was rather sad. Why teach our children about NASA astronauts when we can show them a path to space right here on our own doorstep? Merbold was a scientist first and a true pioneer of what the modern astronaut would be. Today, astronauts are not selected from a pool of Air Force hotshots, but from the brightest minds in the world. 
A new generation
The latest selection process for a new ESA astronaut class was launched on February 16, 2021. At the time, the agency stated that it planned to recruit four to six career astronauts and, for the first time in the agency’s history, a pool of approximately 20 reserve astronauts.
To be considered for a spot, applicants were required to be a citizen of an ESA member state or associate member state, hold a Master’s degree in natural sciences, medicine, engineering, or mathematics with at least three years of professional experience, and speak fluent English. The agency also described the ideal candidate as being someone that can work well within a multicultural team, spend long stretches of time away from family and friends, undergo vigorous physical training, and stay calm under pressure.
The agency received a record 22,000+ applications, which exceeded the agency’s expectations and forced ESA to extend the selection process by several months. Of the 22,523 valid applications, the largest number came from France (7087) followed by Germany (3695) and the United Kingdom (2000).
The applicant pool was whittled down to 1,361 candidates, who were invited to phase two of the selection process. That phase ended in March. 400 candidates were then invited to round three, which was concluded in June. The exact figures for the final two stages of the selection process have not yet been shared.
There was also a completely new element of the selection process for what ESA called a “parastronaut.” This new type of astronaut would open up opportunities for candidates with physical disabilities. According to ESA, 27 parastronaut candidates had been invited to phase two. It’s unclear if any of the 27 are still in the running.
The announcement of the third class of ESA astronauts is expected to occur on Wednesday, 23 November 2022 at the Grand Palais Éphémère in Paris.
Paper rocket or proper rad? - HyImpulse revealed details about the latest design of its SR1 vehicle. Following an interview with co-CEO Christian Schmierer, I published details about the latest design of the SR1, which includes an interesting squared-off section towards the bottom of the rocket. According to Schmierer, this section accommodates “the best packing” of the eight first stage hybrid motors. The other major update is that the third stage went from four hybrid motors to one, and the second stage from four to two. The hybrid motors are also more powerful in this latest iteration.
Well, aren’t you excited! - Avio CEO Giulio Ranzo revealed on LinkedIn that the Vega C that will be used for the vehicle’s first commercial flight is now fully stacked ahead of the launch on Friday, November 25 at 02:47 CET. The mission will carry a pair of Airbus Defence and Space Pléiades Neo very-high-resolution optical Earth-imaging satellites.
Prometheus brings fire to mankind - The Prometheus rocket engine was fired up for the first time at ArianeGroup’s facilities in Vernon. The test included an initial thrust chamber ignition as a prelude to longer-duration trials. The 100-ton thrust class oxygen-methane Prometheus engine features extensive use of new materials and manufacturing techniques, including 3D printing. It is designed to be ultra low-cost, with a target of just a tenth of Ariane 5’s Vulcain 2. The engine is being developed by ArianeGroup under contract from ESA. It will be used aboard the Themis demonstrator, the MaiaSpace Maia, and, potentially in the future, the Ariane 6.
Let there be light - DLR successfully tested the oxygen turbopump of the LUMEN demonstrator engine with liquid oxygen. The test was conducted at the Institute of Space Propulsion P8.3 test facility in Lampoldshausen. The testing included a total run time of 360 seconds over two runs. Project LUMEN (liquid upper stage demonstrator engine) aims to develop and operate a modular LOX/LNG bread-board engine in the 25 kN thrust class. The main focus of this project is to strengthen DLR’s competence on rocket engine system level, as well as to enable tests of new components in a representative system environment.
The big orange rocket finally launched - The European Service Module (ESM) performed flawlessly on the first launch of the NASA SLS rocket. The ESM is the 15,000-kilogram powerplant of NASA’s Orion spacecraft. In addition to propulsion, it provides consumables like oxygen and water, thermal control, and electrical power. The spacecraft’s closest lunar approach and outbound powered flyby occurred earlier today, setting a return path home.
Welcome to the big league little fella - Rocket Factory Augsburg struck a deal with DLR to build a test stand at the Institute of Space Propulsion in Lampoldshausen. The new stand will be used to test the company’s Helix rocket engines, augmenting the capabilities of its current test stand at Esrange Space Center in Sweden. I got a chance to speak to CCO Jörn Spurmann who explained the advantages of the new facility, when it is likely to be operational, and how the development of the RFA ONE is going.
A whoopsie before the announcement - Precious Payload and Rocket Factory Augsburg announced a new partnership to offer upcoming RFA ONE launches from Europe via the company’s Launch.ctrl online platform. According to Precious Payload, the service is designed to minimise costs and development timelines while maximizing launch schedule reliability and mission assurance. The announcement was preceded by the unfortunate leaking of a projected launch date of the RFA ONE MAX by Precious Payload.
Licence to launch - The United Kingdom’s Civil Aviation Authority issued the country’s first spaceport licence to Spaceport Cornwall. The Civil Aviation Authority stated that the spaceport “met the appropriate safety, security, environment, and other aspects to operate a UK spaceport.” The permit gives the spaceport permission to conduct horizontal space launches. With the licence now in hand, the spaceport can continue final preparation for the launch of the first mission from Cornwall, which will be carried aboard a Virgin Orbit LauncherOne.
I got 99 problems and funding ain’t one - Germany’s Einstein Industries Ventures signed a collaboration agreement with the ESA Investor Network. Over the next ten years, Einstein Industries Ventures expects to create a fund worth €300 million to invest in Europe’s leading growth-stage New Space downstream technologies, Earth observation, and sensor technology. ESA will provide strategic advice and technical expertise, thus supporting informed financial decisions and efficient allocation of equity capital among innovative growth companies as they emerge from the start-up phase.
A little blue pill but for satellites - Swiss space tug startup ClearSpace announced a collaboration with satellite operator Intelsat to develop satellite life extension services. The collaboration will focus on one of Intelsat’s operational assets that will be approaching the end of its nominal service lift in the 2026-2028 timeframe. This deal builds upon ClearSpace’s core capabilities being developed under the ESA ClearSpace-1 debris removal mission.
A bus route in space - ESA selected a consortium of companies to carry out studies for a “space transportation exosystem” with the aim of launching a demonstrator mission in 2025. According to the agency, the objective will be to set up an efficient in-space system that would provide transportation capabilities to access new destinations and missions such as spacecraft servicing or repair and in-orbit construction of large structures. The consortium is led by D-Orbit, The Exploration Company, OHB System, S.A.B. Aerospace, and Thales Alenia Space France.
Set sail for the solar system - French solar sail spacecraft startup Gama has partnered with The French Aerospace Lab (ONERA) for its Gama Deta mission. The mission aims to demonstrate the control of a solar sail and its ability to perform change of orbit maneuvers. ONERA will provide technical expertise during the mission’s phase review in addition to providing expertise on the effects of radiation on long-duration interplanetary missions.
Andrew Parsonson has been reporting on space and spaceflight for over five years. He has contributed to SpaceNews and, most recently, the daily Payload newsletter. In late 2021 he launched European Spaceflight as a way to promote the continent’s excellence in space. This newsletter is an extension of that mission.
If you’d like to get in touch to discuss European space or anything really, you can connect with Andrew on Twitter or send me an email to 
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Andrew Parsonson

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