November 22, 2010

ESA Graduates Six Astronauts

The European Space Agency (ESA) has graduated six new astronauts from its basic training program.

The six individuals received their graduation certificates at a special ceremony recently in Cologne, Germany.

They are the first group of candidates ESA has put through its new training program.

Previous astronauts have relied on the U.S. or Russia in order to get their education.

Alexander Gerst, Samantha Cristoforetti, Thomas Pesquet, Andreas Mogensen, Luca Parmitano and Timothy Peake will now be given a range of duties within the agency.

"It's been a real whirlwind, a fantastic experience," said Major Peake, a former helicopter pilot with the British Army Air Corps.

"We now have to wait for our chance to fly in space but there are some great jobs to be doing in the meantime," he told BBC News.

One of the new recruits will visit the International Space Station (ISS) in 2013 for their first mission.  This will be either one of the two Italian fighter pilots Cristoforetti or Parminano.

The 2013 opportunity is guaranteed under an agreement the Italian Space Agency (ASI) has made in exchange for producing key modules for the ISS.

ESA is able to nominate another individual itself the following year, with a further ASI flight guaranteed in 2015.

"Without going into the names and the specifics of who might be assigned to a particular flight, what I can say today is that 50% of the new astronauts are already in a good position to fly by 2015," Simonetta Di Pippo, Esa's director of human spaceflight, told BBC News.

The new recruits were selected in May 2009 and started their training in the September of that year.

Activities have included Russian language lessons, engineering familiarization; and medical, survival and robotics training.  The group has also experienced weightlessness of space by flying on a jet that simulates microgravity conditions.

This was followed up by sessions in a large pool that tries to reproduce the sensation of spacewalking.

The astronauts will also work on Eurocom for a session, which is the ground controller who talks to astronauts on the ISS as they perform experiments in Europe's Columbus science laboratory.

"The training from now on will be much more individualized," Dane Andreas Mogensen told BBC.

"For me personally, in the New Year I will start some pilot training to get my pilot's license. And then there will be other advanced training, for example more EVA training at NASA in Houston and more robotics training in Canada."

The ISS partners have recently agreed to extend the life of the space station until 2020.  European Space Agency members are expected to formally endorse that decision at a council meeting in December.


Image Caption: The new recruits join the European Astronaut Corps and start their training to prepare for future missions to the International Space Station, and beyond. From clockwise from top left: Timothy Peake, Andreas Mogensen, Alexander Gerst, Luca Parmitano, Thomas Pesquet and Samantha Cristoforetti. Credits: ESA - D. Baumbach, 2010


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