On a weekday in February, an unusual message appeared. The European Space Agency (ESA) has been searching for new astronauts for the first time in 11 years. Because two days later we had a recording of Nerdland PodcastTaking a look at the most eye-catching science and technology news of the past month with Lieven Scheire, I examined the call in detail. There were remarkably few prerequisites: a master’s degree in science, three years of professional experience and fluent English speaking. But to my great surprise, I also accomplished many things that led to the recommendation: getting a Ph.D., speaking a third language, working in a lab, doing research on animals, imparting science fluently, etc.
Then it happened. In less than a split second, I think. I decided to nominate myself. as an astronaut. Was it a hasty decision? Absolutely. But contrary to what you might think, science and impulse don’t have to be opposites. exactly the contrary. Even in my own career, I’ve never regretted being impulsive for a moment. Not from the decision to go to drama school between MA and PhD, nor from moving to the Independent Science Monitor 16 days before the first shutdown.
So I had to find a doctor who would do medical tests. Because even though you no longer need to be a pilot, the European Space Agency requires what is called “LAPL Class 2 certification”. The chance of flying as an astronaut is, of course, high. The man gave me a thorough examination: an electrocardiogram of my heart, tests for color blindness, vision, hearing, balance and motor skills. He asked for a urine sample and was given a long questionnaire. Then I wrote a letter of motivation between the moving boxes, filled out the required documents and met the first deadline of May 28.
Now he’s waiting. Until they are registered with the European Space Agency by more than ten thousand registrations. During the previous selection, only 10 percent advanced to the next round. Lots of tests are waiting to measure your concentration, language skills, memory and spatial awareness.
My expectations are realistic. Nine out of ten candidates will drop out this summer, and so am I. But at least I have an official ESA email in my inbox. And the path to it is often at least as interesting as the final destination. For me, the job is already done. It broadened my horizons from a small molecule that may have something to do with cancer to an overwhelming story about human space travel. I got to know people and already have at least five ideas for new projects.
But above all: I’ve obviously inspired a lot of others, including quite a few women. Podcast listeners or people who picked up my story in the media told me they’ve come forward, too. What could be more beautiful for a science communicator than to set fire to others?
And how cool would it be to send a third Belgian player into space after Dirk Fremot and Frank de Winn? The first Belgian on the moon or on Mars, who knows. But above all someone who can help push the boundaries of our knowledge. Who can help find solutions to the challenges on this planet. Because space travel is not a haven from this beautiful globe. It is to ensure that it is preserved in all its glory. And sometimes you have to take a break for that. Sometimes quite literally.
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