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Science

The European Astronaut Center: where Europeans become astronauts

Wanna be an astronaut? The European Astronaut Center's for you. On Wednesday German Chancellor Angela Merkel visits the center in Cologne. She'll see spaceship simulators, a zero gravity training pool and more.

Dive Tank at the European Astronaut Center of ESA in Cologne (Photo: picture alliance/J.W. Alker)

In the dive tank, astronauts learn how to move at zero gravity

The European Space Agency has operated its own training facility since 1990, the European Astronaut Center, on the premises of the German Aeronautics and Space Research Center (DLR).

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It's where all European astronauts go through a three-stage training program. The basics involve education in the field of space technology and electronics, as will as scientific fields.

For advanced students the program includes buoyancy training in a diving pool to get a feeling for conditions at zero gravity. Other parts of the curriculum include the steering of space vehicles, language training in Russian, and specialized programs for learning how to behave under stress and tests of physical and mental fitness.

The last stage of the program includes concrete preparations for a specific space mission. This can be planning scientific experiments, or practicing repair jobs on a spacecraft. This part of the training is custom made for each astronaut.

Recruiting astronauts

All European astronauts are trained at the European Astronaut Center (EAC).

EAC took over responsibility for the running of tenders and job applications for all European astronaut candidates when a joint European Astronaut Corps was founded in 1998.

But today's space exploration is seldom purely European, or American, or Russian, or of any other nation. Space exploration is now highly collaborative and international. So astronauts are also required to spend several stays abroad, for instance, to learn different languages.

Astronauts will usually spend time at partner agencies, such as NASA in the US, and Roskosmos in Russia during the course of their career.

Caring for astronauts' families

One of EAC's important tasks is caring for the families of the astronauts, as the demands of their chosen profession can put a high strain on loved ones.

Often astronauts will be away from home for months long before and after a mission. And in most cases, astronauts conduct more than one long-term mission - up to three space flights is common for an astronaut's career today.

In addition, there are long periods of scientific and medical briefing and de-briefing - before and after missions.

Providing companions on Earth

The ground staff also receives its training at EAC, where they learn how to operate the technical controls for space missions. But this training takes place at the Columbus Control Center (Col-CC) in Munich.

It's part of an astronauts job to handle repair jobs at the International Space Station (ISS). But they can't always fix everything alone.

They need help, people who are permanently available, on Earth. After all, this is where the spacecraft builders, the software programmers and engineers, who developed and constructed all the technical equipment are located.

Astronauts need to be able to rely on perfect technical support, round the clock.

Many companies have a help desk. But they are nothing compared to the European Space Agency's "European Capsule Communicator - EUROcomm". It is peopled by experts, who function as advocates on Earth for the astronauts and who receive their training in close cooperation with them.

German Astronaut Alexander Gerst during his training with the ATV transport module Kepler in 2011 (Photo: Picture Alliance/dpa/H. Kaiser)

German Astronaut Alexander Gerst during his training with the ATV transport module Kepler in 2011

Learning how to dock and unload a Transport Vehicle

One of the training facilities at EAC in Cologne is a life-sized model of an Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV). With this simulator, the astronauts can learn how to securely dock the vehicle to the ISS.

They also train the steps they have to take to unload the cargo. Because space aboard the ISS is limited, every step is carefully planned.

Scientific experiments in the Columbus module

EAC houses an exact copy of ESA's space laboratory, the Columbus module at the ISS.

The simulator in Cologne is equipped just like the real laboratory in space, so astronauts can learn all its functions prior to their mission. It's like a flight simulator used to train airplane pilots.

Among others, the Columbus module includes laboratory facilities for biological, physical and medical experiments. Many of the experiments are prepared in a standardized rack. They can be performed inside a shelf, using as little space as possible, because there is nothing more important in a space laboratory than order and cleanliness.

At :envihab astronauts can be accelerated in this centrifuge

At :envihab astronauts can be accelerated in this centrifuge

Training zero gravity - in a water tank

The "zero buoyancy laboratory" is a vast water tank designed for astronauts to train space walks. In contrast to SCUBA-divers, who can control their buoyancy through breathing and with a buoyancy jacket, astronauts don't have the same options.

Instead, they wear special astronaut suits, which automatically control the buoyancy. Under such circumstances, the main difference from a real space walk is the remaining water resistance. On Earth it does not get much more realistic than that.

Medical research institute next door

Next to EAC is the DLR's newly founded ":envihab" - a medical research institute. All astronauts are checked and cared for thoroughly here, before and after each space flight.

:envihab also conducts research on space and aviation related topics, with broader medical applications.

The institute has special rooms in which almost all possible environmental factors can be influenced and changed, including light, the atmospheric composition and air pressure. And astronauts can be exposed to very high speeds in a large centrifuge, while doctors use ultrasound to analyze how their hearts function.