June 17, 2016

Thoroughly tested before going into space

DLR investigates applicant suitability for 'Die Astronautin' (Female Astronaut) initiative

Out of 550 astronauts that have flown in space, only 60 have been women. The four female European spacefarers in this small group came from Britain, France and Italy. Germany has not yet had a female astronaut. In the late 1980s, German candidate astronauts Heike Walpot and Renate Bruemmer trained to go into space, but neither eventually flew on a space mission. Now the company HE Space is looking for the first German female astronaut to work and live on the International Space Station (ISS) for 10 days. The German Aerospace Center (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt; DLR) is supporting the project and is psychologically and medically evaluating applicants. "Our previous research has principally involved male astronauts. We can use data from the selection process along with evaluations of female astronauts on the ISS to enhance this expertise and acquire knowledge for research," explains Pascale Ehrenfreund, Chair of the DLR Executive Board.

Capable and service-orientated

In autumn 2016 up to 90 out of a total of over 400 applicants are expected to undergo the first psychological tests. These will entail a day-long assessment of their capabilities in terms of concentration, alertness and spatial imagination. In the second stage, the top 30 applicants will have their personality, resilience and motivation checked in interviews and team tasks. "Anyone going on a mission as an astronaut will need to demonstrate high cognitive capabilities and be able to quickly adapt to new, unexpected situations," stresses Yvonne Pecena from the DLR Institute of Aerospace Medicine. "However, the important thing is that the astronaut is happy to place herself at the service of science and a large team on the ground – and ultimately is service-orientated." The psychological tests candidates undergo here are being optimised for the special case of a female commercial space tourist. "DLR already has experience in, among other things, selecting professional European astronauts and is now expanding this to a new target group."

Fit for microgravity

Up to 10 applicants will then be examined in subsequent medical tests at DLR. "We will check the entire body to exclude, as far as possible, the possibility of an applicant becoming ill during training or during their stay on the ISS – not to mention to prevent a mission from being compromised or even cancelled due to illness," explains Claudia Stern, medical director at the DLR Institute of Aerospace Medicine. Exclusion criteria might be anything from increased intraocular pressure, a poor immune system or low bone density, as in all of these cases a stay in microgravity would have a negative effect on the health of the astronaut. Anyone who suffers from bad migraines or mobility limitations in their daily life on Earth is not suitable for an arduous mission in space. Other things such as the functioning of the heart, lungs and kidneys will also be assessed, along with the reflexes and sense of balance.

"The demands on a female commercial astronaut with a one-off stay of 10 days in space are not as high as on longstanding professional astronauts who have to be capable of carrying out multiple long-term missions. However, anyone living and working on the ISS must of course meet the criteria of international space agencies." Following examinations, applicants recommended by DLR are due to be presented to a Space Medicine Board consisting of external evaluators from the space medicine sector in spring 2017. The board will decide on the applicants’ suitability on the basis of the test results.

Astronaut in the service of science

It is not just the data acquired from the suitability tests that is being assessed at DLR and used for scientific research; the first German female astronaut is also expected to undergo experiments on board the ISS if possible, for which little data exists so far. "The hormonal changes in women in microgravity have been barely investigated to date," emphasises Stern. "Hormones are very important for things such as the human skeletal system." There might also potentially be experiments on sight impairment and the increase in brain pressure during stays in microgravity. These effects appear to be somewhat more prominent in male astronauts than female ones. "We only have very limited data on our female European astronauts," adds Stern. The psychological tests will primarily involve examination of the motivation of the applicants, their capability and their resistance to stress in extreme environments. A materials physics experiment on board the ISS might also be one of the tasks for a future female spacefarer.

Women's 'firsts' in space

There have already been female pioneers in space. The Russian Valentina Tereshkova flew into space on 16 June 1963 and landed back on Earth on 19 June – two days, 22 hours and 50 minutes later. In 1984 Svetlana Savitskaya, the second woman in space, also became the first woman to do a spacewalk. Other firsts include the first US female astronaut, Sally Ride, in 1983, the first female space tourist, Anousheh Ansari, in 2006 – and of course the Italian astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti, who set the record for female astronauts in 2015 by spending 199 days on board the International Space Station. One of the candidates in the 'Die Astronautin' initiative would be guaranteed at least one first – she would be the first German female astronaut to go into space.

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Manuela Braun

Editor HR
German Aerospace Center (DLR)
Central HR Marketing
Münchener Straße 20, 82234 Weßling

Dr Yvonne Pecena

German Aerospace Center (DLR)
DLR Institute of Aerospace Medicine
Linder Höhe, 51147 Köln

Dr. med. Claudia Stern

German Aerospace Center (DLR)
Institute of Aerospace Medicine, Medical Operations
Linder Höhe, 51147 Köln