• Special NASA prepares to return to the Moon

"During our interviews in October, you told me interesting stories about why you wanted to be astronauts and what inspired you. I could see then that spark in your eyes, and that you didn't want to do anything but become astronauts and go into space. I still see that spark a month after starting training, "said Josef Aschbacher, director of the European Space Agency (ESA), during the first joint press conference of the five new European astronaut candidates after starting, a month ago, their training at the European Astronaut Center in Cologne (Germany).

Spain's Pablo Álvarez, France's Sophie Adenot, Britain's Rosemary Coogan, Switzerland's Marco Sieber and Belgium's Raphaël Liégeois are part of ESA's new batch of astronauts, who have joined the agency at a particularly exciting time for space exploration, with NASA immersed in the Artemis to the Moon programme involving ESA and the Canadian agency (CSA) as Main partners.

The announcement of the five chosen (among 22,523 candidates from all over Europe) occurred last November amid great expectation, since since 2009 no new astronauts had been incorporated into the agency. "We already feel like a team," said engineer Sophie Adenot.

During the press conference on Wednesday, the five astronaut candidates have been excited after the first weeks of a training that will last at least four years before traveling to space.

Marco Sieber, Raphael Liegeois, Rosemary Coogan, Pablo Álvarez and Sophie AdenotINA FASSBENDERAFP

"Coming from the industry I think I know the level of excellence that engineering can achieve and what we can achieve if Europeans work together," said Spanish aeronautical engineer Pablo Álvarez when asked how he feels about going from building ships to preparing to fly in one of them (until now he worked in the company Airbus, where he is on leave). "I'm looking forward to seeing one of us or our colleagues aboard an Orion spacecraft heading to the moon," said Alvarez, who mentioned the role Pedro Duque played in inspiring him to try to become an astronaut.

"The first month of basic training has been very varied, we have had the visit of many experts who have shared their knowledge with us but I think one of the most outstanding things has been to go to the biology laboratories and have started using microscopes like those on the Space Station. work with samples and imagine what it will be like to do it in an environment without gravity in the coming years, "said astronomer Rosemary Coogan, who has assured that "they are enjoying a lot and it is a real pleasure to learn in this environment.

Although he believes that the rest of the basic training will be exciting, the doctor and military Marco Sieber has admitted that they are "also looking forward to starting practical classes, rehearsing the EVA [extravehicular activities or spacewalks outside the ISS) or doing survival training."

Soon, the British John McFall, the first paraastronaut, will join the training in the center of Cologne. With its election, ESA wants to open space to more people and allow people with disabilities to travel to space. In addition, 11 reserve astronauts have been selected, including the Spanish Sara Álvarez. Although they will continue with their usual jobs, in the case of the Leonese as a researcher at the National Cancer Research Center (CNIO), they will do periodic training courses waiting to have an opportunity to travel to space.

A long workout

The five astronaut candidates will be focused on their training for at least the next four years. One year from now, upon completing basic training, they will be certified astronauts and will continue to train for another year until they are assigned a mission, for which they will specifically prepare for at least another two years. Their training includes stays in the centers of the other space agencies that have modules on the International Space Station (ISS), which will almost certainly be the destination of the first mission assigned to them.

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Portrait of Pablo Álvarez, the new Spanish astronaut: "They are not looking for geniuses, but people who do not fail"

  • Writing: TERESA GUERRERO Getafe (Madrid)

Portrait of Pablo Álvarez, the new Spanish astronaut: "They are not looking for geniuses, but people who do not fail"


These are the four astronauts who will orbit the Moon in 2024

  • Writing: TERESA GUERRERO Madrid

These are the four astronauts who will orbit the Moon in 2024

The plan, however, is that both some of the oldest European astronauts and these five who have just joined have the possibility of going to the Moon in the next Artemis missions, the program to return to the Moon led by NASA.

As Dave Parker, ESA's director of robotic exploration and human spaceflight, pointed out in his presentation, "at least three European astronauts will go to the Gateway lunar station" within the framework of the Artemis program. It is a platform that will orbit around the Moon and in which Europe plays a prominent role as it builds approximately half of the station. From 2025, it will be permanently operational to support the activities that take place on the surface of our satellite.

We know that in Artemis II (the mission that will orbit the Moon for about 10 days at the end of 2024, without landing on the moon) no European will travel because the chosen ones are three Americans and a Canadian, but Europe builds one of the modules of the Orion ship (the service module) so it is expected that some of the European astronauts who go to Gateway descend to the lunar surface. Likewise, it has not been ruled out that a European could travel in Artemis III, the mission that will land for the first time since 1972, and in which the first woman and the first black person to step on our satellite will go. This mission will take place in 2025, at the earliest.

Living on the Moon

Unlike what happened with the Apollo program, the goal now is that there is a continued presence on our satellite: "The Moon is the next place where we will work and live," said Parker, who will soon leave the position he has held for the last seven years.

The head of robotic and human exploration has detailed ESA's plans until 2030, which include sending several robotic missions that will pave the way for the presence of humans in this hostile environment. Thus, the Lunar Pathfinder mission will be launched in 2025 and two years later the Moonlight constellation will take off, with the aim of providing navigation and connectivity services to astronauts such as those offered on Earth through Galileo and GPS. Later, in the 30s, the Argonaut missions will arrive regularly, a kind of truck that will land on the moon and transport various types of cargo, from scientific material to robotic vehicles (ROVERS), resources for life on the Moon or different components for infrastructures.

What seems clear is that ESA, which usually sends its astronauts on American ships and until the war in Ukraine, worked closely with Russia, wants to be more ambitious in space, as Josef Aschbacher has assured: "Europe has to wake up and intensify its capabilities in space." The director of ESA stressed that although "of course they will continue to fly with their partners such as NASA", the objective is "to be more independent and autonomous" and recalled that space activities are not only about space, but also with geopolitics and economics.

For this reason, Aschbacher has already asked the political leaders of the 22 members of ESA for their commitment at the next meeting to make that ambition a reality because they are the ones who, depending on the investment, will decide what Europe will do in robotic and human exploration: "We are developing different scenarios, cost estimates and different options", said the ESA director.

  • Articles Teresa Guerrero

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