In Europe, it is more difficult to become an astronaut than a prime minister, a football player or a movie star. Places are limited: Since 1978, there have been a total of three calls for new astronauts. The competition is very fierce. When the European Space Agency first published a vacancy thirteen years ago in March of last year, at least 22,589 candidates responded. Thus, the European Space Agency received nearly 100 studio requests for the program K2 searches for K3.
One of the last 1,500 candidates is Barbara Versk, an anesthesiologist from Turnhout and a researcher at Katrina Hospital in Eindhoven. If she succeeds, she could become the first woman to set foot on the moon. “We’re not there yet, and I’m very happy to be in the last 7 percent,” Versk says. “Now first we have to wait for the results of the day of the test that took place a few weeks ago at the ESA facility in Hamburg.”
What did this mean?
We were invited in groups of 40 to run a series of tests on a computer. We gave memory exercises, along with questions in mathematics and physics. Then I followed the personality test – we were not informed beforehand.
There was also a flight simulator that tested our steering skills. In space, concepts like above and below are not intuitive, and even without this basic guidance, you should be able to quickly process new information and input. During the simulation, we had to read the clock in a short time and at the same time keep track of a wide range of other parameters.
What are the next stages?
There are a total of six rounds to choose. The first was screening. Of all the entries, 22.589 were found to meet the selection criteria. This is a penalty when you consider that you had to submit an aeromedical examination. Among other things, you had to undergo a urinalysis, balance tests and a full medical examination. This takes a whole day, and costs a few hundred euros. Applications were evaluated several times, after which 1,500 candidates remained. Last fall they were all invited to test day in Hamburg.
The next phases will consist of more practical and psychometric tests, both individually and in group. This is followed by a medical examination during which your physical and mental condition is tested. Anyone who survives all of this will be invited for an interview where the panel will check your technical and social competencies. In the final stage, General Manager Joseph Ashbacher will conduct an interview with the remaining candidates.
After this elimination race, ESA hopes to leave four to six astronauts behind, along with a reserve team. When will they be officially recruited?
“I was told that the team should be formed by the fall. It is still a long time, and at the same time not very long. And then it really starts. The selected candidates undergo a rigorous training schedule, which includes diving, bonus flights and technical training. They have a career ahead of them. By about twenty years.
What are the duties of an ESA astronaut?
The astronaut is a researcher, and the International Space Station is his laboratory. Limited gravity and a constant Earth orbit make it possible to conduct research in conditions as they are in space while maintaining a more or less controlled environment, relatively close to home. Some studies look at long-term effects, and others work on their own, without much monitoring needed. Still others are specifically attached to an astronaut’s residence.
Sometimes you have to perform an extra-vehicular activity, which is called an extra-vehicular activity. You have to go outside for station repair or maintenance. Apart from that, a large part of an astronaut’s daily life on the International Space Station consists of self-care. You have to train for two hours a day to maintain your muscle mass. On the International Space Station you have sunrise and sunset every two hours. This is a very confusing pattern. You have to set your rhythm.
And every now and then, you just have to sit on the toilet and look at the ground through the dome (He laughs)“.
How do you feel about the physical and mental risks of the profession?
I believe that the knowledge you gain during your years of training gives you inner peace. You understand how a rocket works, you know what it feels like to spin around in a little capsule. You can count on the process, material and method. I think you also find courage in your colleagues and in the idea that you are actively contributing to scientific progress.
The last time the European Space Agency recruited astronauts was in 2008, when 1,287 women signed up. This time there were 5,419, almost a quarter of all candidates. What is this increase attributed to?
The organization has also made every effort to address women in its appeal. She explicitly indicated that they could report. The vacancy also included a photo of a woman. It helped me. For a long time the image of the astronaut was masculine. Standards can create a dangerous barrier if you don’t meet them“.
This year, the European Space Agency is also recruiting astronauts with a physical disability. The appeal should have less impact on that group.
Scientifically speaking, there is a lot to be said about female astronauts. A woman’s body is generally lighter, consumes fewer calories and is said to withstand the effects of space travel to a greater degree. You might be wondering why there wasn’t an all-female space crew.
I think ESA considers all criteria in its selection procedure. Better to make it. If being a woman has an advantage, this can be included in the assessment. But the candidate’s gender seems less decisive to me than their profile.
At the same time, it is of course true that you can only become what you have seen. This is why it is so important that many women apply for jobs like this.
Until further notice, you are an anesthesiologist in your daily life. Do you see any connections between your current job and your career as an astronaut?
‘I think there is.’ In the intensive care unit and the operating room I see many patients and diseases. I am responsible for ventilation and additional support for vital functions. In space, it’s not so obvious that you can breathe and that your body functions like it does here on Earth – the lack of gravity has an effect anyway. Having someone on board who can provide basic support to the body is not a superfluous luxury“.
Space agencies have already publicly expressed their ambitions to send manned missions to the Moon and Mars. On such trips, we must bear in mind that we will have to perform a hitherto unprecedented medical procedure from Earth. Pain relief and medical comfort should be provided. This may go as far as medication: If you have kidney stones, for example, you won’t get there with Dafalgan.
For my PhD, I did research on Local Anesthesia: Anesthesia Techniques That Don’t Require a Ventilator. With the limited resources and the small space you have on a space mission, these techniques are probably more feasible than full anaesthesia.
What do your colleagues in the hospital think of your attempt to become an astronaut?
Everyone is excited and interested. I told a fellow surgeon that the European Space Agency was considering removing the appendix or removing the gallbladder for astronauts bound for the Moon or Mars — it would be a real shame if I had to stop such a mission early because of appendicitis. The surgeon promised me that if I got the job, he would remove my appendix and gallbladder for free. You have classmates for that.
“Coffee fanatic. Friendly zombie aficionado. Devoted pop culture practitioner. Evil travel advocate. Typical organizer.”