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The European Space Agency (ESA), in its first recruitment drive in 10 years, is looking to increase diversity by hiring disabled people and more women. During the last recruitment round in 2008, only about 16% of the 8 thousand applicants were women and currently, only 1 of the 7 astronauts from the agency mission-ready to be sent to the International Space Station (ISS)is a woman. Historically, 90% of astronauts have been men.

With the opening of 24 new places, women are being encouraged to apply and the ‘Parastronaut Feasibility Project’ is initiating an effort to enable people with disabilities to go into space. Obviously, as with any astronaut, specific candidates are inevitably sought, but the aim is to motivate more people to apply.

The programme wants to select between 4 and 6 astronauts plus approximately 20 reserves to take part in shorter missions. The reserve group would contain recruits with disabilities, giving time for adaptations and modifications to be developed before actual travel into space.

Samantha Cristoforetti, the only woman in the ESA currently ready to be sent to the ISS said, “When it comes to space travel, everyone is disabled. The solution is just technology.”

The ESA consulted the International Paralympic Committee to determine what types of disabilities would be compatible with missions into space, categorising them as incompatible, compatible, and compatible with technical modifications to the mission.

The selection process, which includes psychometric screening, medical screening, psychological tests, and interviews, takes 18 months. Successful selection leads to training in survival skills, running the spacecraft, learning to speak Russian, and simulated weightlessness training. When fully trained, the astronauts will first undergo missions to the ISS, and in the longer term to the moon or possibly Mars. Recruits will need to have the motor skills necessary for them to work in and be able to leave the space station independently and be able to see and hear.

The vigorous requirements include a minimum of 3 years’ relevant work experience plus a master’s degree in either medicine, natural sciences, mathematics, computer science or engineering, or a test-pilot licence.

Successful applicants will also participate in life science experiments as one of their main tasks is to study the impact of space on the human body. In addition, they must show that they can deal with the varied challenges of space travel including hard physical exertion, weightlessness (leading to loss of bone mass, muscle and strength and blood volume), washing with wet towels, and dehydrated food.

In addition to diversity, there are scientific benefits from recruiting women as the research will highlight how space affects humans differently depending on ethnicity, age, and gender.

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