The European Astronaut Corps

by the European Space Agency

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The European Space Agency began its manned flight programme with Spacelab, providing the opportunity for the selection of the first ESA Astronauts in 1978. The three first astronauts selected were the German Ulf Merbold, the Dutch Wubbo Ockels and the Swiss Claude Nicollier.

Ulf Merbold was the first to fly in 1983 with STS-9 and Wubbo Ockels flew two years later. Claude Nicollier, who had to wait 14 years to experience his first flight with STS-46 in 1992, now leads the pack with four space flights.

The second ESA astronaut selection was in 1992 in the framework of two major ESA programmes: HERMES (today cancelled) and COLUMBUS. The larger number of astronauts selected and the variety of European nations represented reflected the increased public interest in Europe for manned flight in this period. More than 22 000 Europeans expressed interest in becoming astronauts, including 5500 serious candidates.

Six candidates were finally selected, including only one previously selected national astronaut: Jean-Francois Clervoy, the first French member of the Corps. Also selected were the second German astronaut, Thomas Reiter, Maurizio Cheli from Italy (resigned in 1996), Pedro Duque from Spain, Christer Fuglesang from Sweden and the first woman, Marianne Merchez from Belgium who has since resigned and did not fly.

On 25 March 1998, the ESA Council decided to build up the single European Astronaut Corps. The objective was to improve the management of the organisation in the framework of the International Space Station programme in which ESA plays a major role. France and Germany, who were the only European countries with a national Astronaut Corps, promoted the idea that the fusion was a good and necessary decision to optimize the astronaut resources.

The details of the Council resolution included: the decision of the constitution of a corps of 16 Astronauts (four for Germany, France and Italy and four for all the other Member States). The integration process would culminate with the dissolution of the national Astronaut Corps at the end of June 2000. This agreement does not exclude the possibility of a Member State using an astronaut of the European Astronaut Corps for a space mission organised at the national level.

The first group of seven astronauts joined the Corps in 1998:
Gerhard Thiele and Hans Schlegel from Germany
Umberto Guidoni, Paolo Nespoli and Roberto Vittori from Italy
Léopold Eyharts and Jean-Pierre Haigneré from France

Haignere left the corps in November 1999 after his second flight to become Head of the Astronaut Division. The second group of four astronauts joined in 1999 and included Reinhold Ewald from Germany, André Kuipers from the Netherlands and Michel Tognini and Claudie Haigneré (formerly André-Deshays) from France. Claudie is currently the only female astronaut in the Corps.

At the beginning of 2000, Frank De Winne from Belgium, became the latest astronaut to join the Corps.