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“A great interest in Luxembourg for space”

The essential: How do you react to the presence of six Luxembourgers among the 1,361 Europeans still in the running to become astronauts for the European Space Agency?

Dr. Marc Serres: It is a surprise. We had already been surprised by the number of candidates at the start (65). It’s a good surprise to see that there are still a significant number for the next phase. We weren’t expecting it, but it shows the great interest in space in a small country like Luxembourg, even among the general public.

It also seems that the qualities of Luxembourgers are recognized in this area?

The following phases will still include tests to be carried out. We can draw conclusions in May-June. But the fact that there is this pre-selection shows that we have people who potentially have the qualifications for this kind of job.

Space is a dream in Luxembourg…

Yes, the space sector is one of the few sectors that make people’s eyes shine, regardless of the age of the people involved. This is even truer when you meet astronauts. They have a magical power, that of captivating their audience. Space remains a theme that generates a lot of fascination. It can be used to interest the younger generation in slightly more technical professions. And if some of our residents make it through the selection process, that would be fantastic.

Can we believe it?

I don’t know the candidates personally. The process involves some discretion on the part of ESA over the candidates. In previous campaigns there have been candidates from Luxembourg. Some have, I believe, passed certain stages but none have reached the end. The selection is still going to be important. By June, we will still divide the number of candidates by ten. It’s going to be very competitive. Difficult to give a prognosis. But I am naturally optimistic, we must continue to believe in it.

Among the candidates, there is a woman…

Of the total candidates, three-quarters were men and one-quarter women. Unfortunately, the statistics are not in favor of women. But we must not stop at statistics. It’s important for us to see that women have their place here, they are motivated. In addition, we have one in Luxembourg which remains in the race, so we will follow that closely.

What are the qualities to be an astronaut?

There are two parts. Technical skills. Astronauts have a lot of activity on the International Space Station to maintain it and to do experiments for researchers who do not go to the station. They must learn before the mission what manipulations they must do in space. So there is an important scientific and technical background that is necessary. The second component is health. Astronauts are subjected to extreme physical constraints, which are difficult for ordinary mortals. This requires training and physical and psychological predispositions. At times, they find themselves confined for several months in a small environment, with a certain number of people. You need to have this psychological strength to carry out your mission.

When would the selection end, when would they go into space?

It is planned to announce the final selection during the months of October-November. After the selection, they will have to continue training. The flight opportunity is discussed with Russian, American and Japanese partners. The station occupancy schedule is done in cooperation. Generally, ESA gives a mission opportunity to each astronaut. It may take time. But when you are a member of the ESA astronaut pool, you are relatively sure to have a flight opportunity in your career. It’s more like two to five years.

A Luxembourger in space, does that make you dream?

It would be fantastic to have a Luxembourgish astronaut. We may already have a Luxembourger in space because private companies will provide suborbital flight services (Editor’s note: a suborbital flight is a space flight of a spacecraft moving in space at a suborbital speed, slower than the speed required to keep it in orbit), up to about 100 km in space. It is an altitude where we begin to feel the absence of gravity and where we see the curvature of the Earth. We already have at this altitude a very strong feeling of space. Companies are about to start carrying future space tourists and a Luxembourger has, as far as I know, a ticket. He might be able to fly this year. We could have a Luxembourger in space, even before knowing if an astronaut is retained.

(Collected by Nicolas Martin/L’essentiel)

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