Wanted: Female German Astronauts

Mar 18, 2016
Originally published on March 18, 2016 5:44 pm

Is outer space a man's domain? You might think so in Germany, where the country's 11 astronauts have all been men. They also dominate mission control at the German Space Operations Center, although Katja Leuoth is helping to change that.

Five years ago, Leuoth became the center's first female flight director. Recently, a second woman was hired, she says. They and 10 male colleagues run the European portion of the International Space Station 24/7 from the compound in the small Bavarian town of Oberpfaffenhofen.

It's a challenging job, but what Leuoth really wants is to be inside the module as it floats around Earth, especially when she talks to the astronauts.

"We had a couple of computer issues on the ground and we asked them to reboot," Leuoth says. "And Scott Kelly was like: 'Ah, maybe that is because of some solar eruptions I've just seen.' And you're just sitting down there, like, 'whoa.'

"For them, it's so common," she added. But "it's something I really would love to see."

But she can't — at least, not yet. The European Space Agency — to which Germany and 21 other countries belong — is not planning to hire any women in the foreseeable future.

Past female applicants say the agency only recruits astronauts every 14 years or so. Even when it does, it's rare for women to advance to the final rounds.

The last time, about 1,700 women applied. But only one — Italian Samantha Cristoforetti — made it onto the team, says Claudia Kessler, the German CEO of HE Space, an engineering services company for the space sector with offices in Houston and across Europe. (Kessler says the name is derived from the last name of one of the American co-founders, not the male pronoun.)

Kessler says she's frustrated by the trend, but not surprised. German women who go into the sciences or pursue technical careers often face discrimination at home, school and work, despite the example set by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is a chemist by training.

There's even a derogatory term for working mothers in any field — Rabenmutter, or "raven mother." It refers to the myth that a raven's young are left to fend for themselves too early.

"I heard that when my daughter was small," Kessler says. There is still pressure on women "to manage both kids and the job, whereas the husband can just focus on his career," she adds.

"There are so many bright women coming up and they don't even have a chance to apply" to be astronauts, she says. That's because, Kessler says, ESA for now plans to select any new astronauts it needs from its backup list. And that list includes no women.

So Kessler decided this month to launch her own project, called Astronautin — the feminine version of astronaut in German — to recruit and train the first German female space traveler and send her to the International Space Station by 2020. The female astronaut's mission during the weeklong trip will be to conduct experiments, including ones proposed by German girls, to help encourage their interest in mathematics and sciences, Kessler says.

"It's going to be like a private mission to ISS, like there have been before," Kessler says. "We are going to buy a commercial mission with the Russians."

First she must raise more than $30 million, the cost for a seat on a Soyuz rocket. Kessler says she is pursuing that through crowdsourcing and company sponsors.

So far, the 50 applicants far outnumber sponsors. Another woman who plans to apply is Kessler's friend and fellow German aerospace engineer, Tina Buechner da Costa, who was inspired to pursue a space-related career after seeing the movie Apollo 13.

Da Costa, a lanky, 37-year-old mother of two from Bremen, tests Ariane 6 rockets for a living and dreams of seeing Earth from space. "I've listened to a lot of astronauts describing this view, and every time, it gives me goosebumps," she says.

Back at the German Space Operations Center in Bavaria, Leuoth also plans to apply, although she jokes she may wait a while before telling her mother.

"Have you ever seen a launch? You're sitting on tons of fuel and somebody is holding a fire basically underneath," she explained. "It is a dangerous thing to do, that's for sure, but it is so inspiring, so I would definitely do it."

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Transcript

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

In Germany, all of the country's 11 astronauts are men. Now a German businesswoman is hoping to change that with a pricey venture to put a woman in space. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson reports from the European Space Agency's Mission Center in the German state of Bavaria.

FRANCESC BETORZ: Yeah, the power vector for EPM...

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: Francesc Betorz leads a recent simulation here at mission control for the European part of the International Space Station.

BETORZ: But if the rocket is active since the beginning of the simulation, it should be active since 7, right?

NELSON: He works in a field that for decades has been dominated by men. But that's changing.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Yeah, but the real...

NELSON: A woman answers Betorz on his headset. And two of the flight controllers he's training at this mission control in Bavaria are female, too. The upper ranks are also opening up to German women, including Katja Leuoth. For five and half years, she's been a flight director for the European section of the space station.

KATJA LEUOTH: I mean, it is a challenging job, yes, but I think it - not necessarily because I'm a woman. It's just in general. It's a lot of responsibility. It's a lot of things that you have to learn just to be good enough to control the module.

NELSON: But no matter how good she gets, Leuoth hasn't been able to realize her dream of getting into the space station as it floats around the Earth.

LEUOTH: A great story, for example, was when Scott Kelly called down so we had a couple of computer issues on the ground and asked them to reboot. And Scott Kelly was, like, ah, maybe that is because of some solar eruptions I've just seen. And you're just sitting down there, like, whaaa (ph). And for them, it's so common. And it's something I really would love to see.

NELSON: There haven't been any German women astronauts nor are there likely to be any future ones for years to come, at least not recruited by the European Space Agency or ESA to which Germany and 21 other countries belong. Past applicants to the agency I interviewed say astronaut recruitment only occurs every 14 years or so. And even when it does, there's little chance of it leading anywhere. The last time about 1,700 women applied, but only one, an Italian, made it onto the team. That irks Claudia Kessler. She's the German CEO of an engineering services company in Bremen called HE Space.

CLAUDIA KESSLER: It's just too long, you know. There are so many bright women coming up, and they don't even have a chance to apply. And they'd rather recruit again from the backup candidates, which do not contain any women.

NELSON: So she launched her own project this month to recruit the first German woman astronaut. Kessler says her plan is not only to find the right candidate, but to train her and then send her to the International Space Station no later than 2020. Once there, the astronaut will conduct experiments, including ones proposed by German girls, to get more of them interested in mathematics and sciences.

KESSLER: It's going to be a private mission to ISS like there have been before. And yeah, so we're going to buy a commercial mission with the Russians.

NELSON: First though, Kessler will have to raise the $30 million or so it costs to catch a ride on a Soyuz rocket. She's pursuing that through crowdsourcing and company sponsors. Back at mission control in Bavaria, flight director Leuoth says she plans to apply, although she may wait a while before telling her mother.

LEUOTH: Oh, well, have you ever seen a launch? I mean, you're sitting on tons of fuel and somebody is holding a fire basically underneath. And it is a dangerous thing to do, that's for sure. But it is so inspiring, and so I would definitely do it.

NELSON: She jokes that she would even go as a housekeeper for the space station if it will get her there faster. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News in Oberpfaffenhofen, Germany. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.