At the end of March, the European Space Agency (ESA) announced that for the first time in more than ten years it was accepting applications for new astronauts, and Finns were also among those encouraged to apply for the training.
Applications have been accepted for persons with master's degrees in the natural sciences, medicine, engineering, mathematics, or computer science as well as three years of work experience in their fields. Also required are strong motivation, language skills, and resilience under pressure. Aalto alumni Sini Merikallio, Juuso Mikkola and Timo Nikkanen, who met the application requirements explain what it is about space that fascinates them and why they decided to apply to become astronauts.
Sini Merikallio has switched from space science to veterinary medicine. Juuso Mikkola is in the Finnish Air Force as an operative specialist for space performance, Timo Nikkanen is an engineer in the company Reaktor Space Lab, where he is working in design, construction, and testing of small satellites for various projects, including those of the ESA.
What fascinates you most about space?
Sini: Outer space is a massive area full of possibilities and new worlds. Space has many extremes: freezing cold, burning heat, unbelievable densities, as well as unimaginable emptiness. From the vantage point of space, it is also possible to look at the Earth from a completely different angle. Remote sensing is crucially important in the fight against climate change and the destruction of biodiversity. In accordance with the spirit of the times it can be said that space sciences are now experiencing a real acceleration phase and it is worth applying to join them also from a slightly longer distance.
Juuso: I see space as a very interesting field to work in, as its importance for society is constantly increasing. In my work the emphasis is naturally on how space affects warfare and the changes that take place in it. In space-related matters, it often seems that there are possibilities of getting to develop new methods and procedures, which keep the work meaningful. There were certainly many applicants for the astronaut posts, and only very few of them will be selected. The application process itself is still very interesting, and you certainly cannot succeed if you do not apply. I suppose that the adventure of being an astronaut would be kind of fascinating – that is, entering an environment that few have visited before. However, the work of an astronaut is ultimately research work that expands the perception of all of humanity on functioning and operating in space. It would be fascinating to get to carry out this research also in outer space since some of the same things are already being dealt with on Earth through satellite services.
Timo: Space has fascinated me for a very long time, and this interest has guided the choices of my life. I was greatly interested in astronomy, space, and scientific thinking in my teens, and because of that I applied to study space technology. I suppose that fascinating aspects of space include the vastness of the universe and the possibilities of endlessly discovering and studying things that are new for humanity.
What kinds of skills do astronauts need? Have you been developing some of your areas of expertise for your application?
Sini: An astronaut needs to be good enough on a broad scale, and I imagine that psychological features would ultimately prove to be the most important, because once you lose that, nothing else will matter very much. You need to master the technology and stay in good physical condition. Still, they are not looking for any supermen there – just a working piece to support a team – the kind that will not crumble under pressure.
I awoke to this application process a bit too late, and I have admired my friends who have understood the usefulness of studying Russian, for instance, already from last autumn.
My own life has also been moving in a direction that I hope will be useful in the application process. In addition to my studies in engineering, I will soon be a qualified veterinarian. I also believe that there will be no harm from my experiences as a veterinarian: interactive skills with clients improve imperceptibly, and sometimes, when performing challenging surgery, it feels as if one had a spaceship to guide through an asteroid zone with someone else's beloved family member on board.
Juuso: Astronauts are expected to have extensive skills and knowledge, and an ability to adapt to different kinds of situations. For example, work on a space station ranges from cleaning the station or making repairs all the way to the scientific research and space walks that take place there. This means that astronauts need both theoretical and practical skills and knowledge, and the ability to apply them to different matters. Safety is also a very critical issue in the activity, and outside help is not available in unexpected situations. I believe that a military career of about 15 years has prepared me for working as part of a group in all kinds of situations. This is how I have also grown accustomed to working irregular hours, living in cramped spaces, and taking part in operations of long duration. I have not developed my abilities specifically for this, and it such development would not even be very realistic under this application schedule.
Timo: It is my view that an astronaut must be motivated, a good team player, capable of coping with stress, and eager to learn new things. Astronauts naturally need many special skills, which are practised during training.
I have not developed my skills and knowledge specifically with the astronaut application process in mind. However, I have learned useful skills in my studies, my work, and my hobbies. In my work at Reaktor Space Lab I have been involved in planning, building, and testing small satellites for ESA projects, among other things. Work takes place in a closely-knit team and often on a tight schedule. A good team spirit and ability to manage stress are needed for this. I have also worked with the Mars projects of the Finnish Meteorological Institute, where pressure and humidity gauges are made for Mars landers. My various tasks have taught me about designing and building equipment for conditions prevailing in space, and about how space organisations like ESA operate.
I fly gliders and propeller planes as a hobby, and I believe that this could also be useful in applying for being an astronaut. Flying teaches how to function systematically under special circumstances, as well as risk management skills linked with one's own safety. In addition to flying, I hike and move around in nature, which has taught me survival skills and how to function in difficult conditions.
I have also once had the opportunity to experience weightlessness when I took a weightlessness flight as part of a prize for an ESA idea competition which I won in 2015.
What kind of readiness and skills have you learned at Aalto University that an astronaut would need?
Sini: A master's degree in technology, and later a doctoral thesis in physics for the Department of Neuroscience and Biomedical Engineering have created a good foundation for applying to be an astronaut. Skills in physics and mathematics are a solid foundation for learning all kinds of other things, but I would also place high value on skills that I learned in clubs at school. I have learned much about gadgets and people both in the technology students’ car club when I competed in a car slalom race, flying a glider in the Aviation club, in martial arts practice with military reservists, while hunting moose with tech student hunters, and setting up PORK, the Polytech students’ Rugby Club. (However, we did not even manage to get this last one registered, even though we did practice the sport for a few years).
The open video lectures at Aalto have been a great way to refresh one's thoughts, I have enjoyed the mysteries of systems analysis, among other things. The ability to learn and the joy of learning are undoubtedly among the most important things that schools have to offer. Learning broadens our perspectives and could also help us get into space.
Juuso: The main readiness and skill that Aalto has given me has been a degree in the field. Although I had another master's degree before I got my degree in engineering, it would not have allowed me to take part in this application process. Studying space technology has considerably increased my general understanding about space as an operating environment, and my technical skills. The application process does not directly emphasise space technology skills, but I believe that it is an advantage. My own background is in the Navy, but now I am in the Air Force, dealing with space matters, largely thanks to what I learned at Aalto University. I feel that my clear strengths in this application process have come more from my prior work history and my hobbies, rather than directly from my studies at Aalto.
Timo: I was taking part in the Aalto-1 satellite project from the very beginning and that project taught me and prepared me to work in the field of space more than any individual course would have done. In addition, at Aalto I acquired the ability to learn more efficiently. When working as an astronaut, and as an engineer in general, it is not enough to rely only on one's prior skills. A readiness and desire to constantly develop further are also needed.
The selection process for astronauts, with its many phases, takes more than a year. In the next ten years ESA will recruit new employees at the rate of about 100 a year. ESA is looking for a new generation of space professionals to build a European future in space. In the future, ESA astronauts will be split into two classes of astronaut - career astronauts and project astronauts. Read more (in Finnish).