June 17, 2009

ESA Chief Says 6 Rookie Astronauts “˜Will All Fly’

European Space Agency chief Jean-Jacques Dordain on Tuesday addressed concerns over the space agency's likelihood of getting all six of its new astronauts into space in the near future.

"They will all fly; and this is a commitment we have to them," he told BBC News during the Paris air show. "Your British astronaut will fly."

That British astronaut is Tim Peake, also known as "Major Tim". Peake is among a class of astronaut candidates announced by the ESA in May. The group marks the first by the ESA since 1992.

Some speculate that the six new astronauts will not get the chance to fly due to a scheduled hiatus from space activity next year as NASA prepares to retire its space shuttle fleet.

NASA is currently developing a replacement called Aries-Orion, but the project isn't expected to be finished before 2015. The space shuttle retirement would leave Russia's Soyuz as the only option for ESA to send crewmembers to the space station until the US completed Aries-Orion.

Dordain told AFP that the agency was in talks with Russia and the US to try to claim seats on future missions for European astronauts.
"I cannot tell you yet what will be the final scenario but we are working on certain tracks," he said.

"We are discussing with not only the United States and Russia but also maybe the other partners, because Japan and Canada, they are like us, they are also missing some flight opportunities and maybe we can combine our efforts to buy an additional three seats."

"If we have selected six, it's because we are convinced they will all fly," he added.

Major Tim, who is set to begin training in Cologne, Germany in September, told BBC that he has been transitioning from his test pilot job with helicopter company AgustaWestland to becoming an ESA astronaut.

"I've had to hand in my notice, of course; I can't go on working for Westland and do ESA."

"It's all slowly starting to sink in. It's quite funny because after the announcement and a rush of PR, the last few weeks have been work as normal. But then I come here to Le Bourget and I'm hit by the shock of it all again, and I realize there is an exciting adventure ahead."

Simonetta Di Pippo, ESA's director of human spaceflight, said it would take at least three and a half years to prepare the 6 rookies for space.

"There are many factors," she told BBC News. "For one thing, you have to consider the overall crew and they must be compatible with the mission. Some are better than others at robotics; some are very good on spacewalks. The full crew has to have all the capabilities."


Image Credit: ESA


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