Move over rocket man: Meteoric rise in British women wanting to blast off into space

·3 min read
Naomi Rowe-Gurney who has applied to become an ESA astronaut, at her home in Leicester - JOHN ROBERTSON
Naomi Rowe-Gurney who has applied to become an ESA astronaut, at her home in Leicester - JOHN ROBERTSON

Naomi Rowe-Gurney has waited 11 years to complete the application for her dream job – to become an astronaut.

Aged 19, she was too young to apply for the last call by the European Space Agency (ESA) in 2008. But now, aged 31 – with a PhD, years of experience and proficiency in Mandarin – she is one of 22,500 people who have applied to become one of the agency's next cosmonauts.

This includes 1,979 British applicants, 560 (28.3 per cent) of whom are female – up almost 10 per cent on the 2008 figures. Around a quarter (24 per cent, or 5,400) of all applicants were women, up 16 per cent from 2008.

Between four and six career astronauts will join the ESA workforce as permanent staff members, and there will be a reserve of up to 20 people who will not immediately be hired but will remain with their current employers until a flight opportunity for them is identified.

"I would be so happy with the reserve list," Ms Rowe-Gurney, who is in the final year of her PhD in Planetary Science at the University of Leicester, told The Telegraph.

Naomi Rowe-Gurney, in the final year of her PhD in Planetary Science at the University of Leicester, is setting her sights on a trip to space
Naomi Rowe-Gurney, in the final year of her PhD in Planetary Science at the University of Leicester, is setting her sights on a trip to space

She would be making history if she did, as the first black gay woman to become a British ESA astronaut. "I would love to be a role model and show people who look like me that they can be anything they want," she said.

Tim Peake was the first British ESA astronaut. Helen Sharman was the first Briton to travel into space in 1991.

The 2021 astronaut selection is the first time ESA has issued a vacancy for an astronaut with a physical disability.

More than 250 people applied for the role, including 31 from the UK, and the successful candidate will work with the ESA to determine the adaptations required for such an astronaut to serve as a professional crew member on a future space mission.

There are six stages to the recruitment process, which takes around 18 months, and the successful candidates will not be announced until late next year.

In the first stage, applications will be screened. Next, the candidates will undergo cognitive, technical and personality tests, while the third stage involves an assessment centre including group tasks and practical tests.

Only around 40 candidates are expected to make it to the final stage of the process – a final interview with Josef Aschbacher, the ESA director general.

Mr Aschbacher said: "This is probably historic – having so many applications for, at the end, a handful of jobs. I think this is really showing that the competition is high, but I really wish every single applicant all the best of luck."

David Parker, the ESA director of human and robotic exploration, said: "It is pleasing to see an increase in the gender distribution of applicants to this astronaut selection, but the numbers also show there is more to be done to achieve gender balance in the space sector."

It comes as the European Union approved a rival EU-only €9 billion space programme to the European Space Agency. The EU Agency for the Space Programme (EUSPA) will have oversight of the EU's activities in space, but there will be overlap with the larger and older ESA.

That relationship will be governed by a partnership agreement which sets out how much the EU will pay ESA until 2027 (about €9.3 billion out of a total EU space budget of €14.8 billion). The UK backed the agreement after securing concessions over intellectual property and a commitment that British nationals would only be stopped from working on EU-funded projects in the most security-sensitive areas.

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