Astronauts: Do You Have What It Takes?

By Vijay Shah (BBC 2 Series Contender)

I’ve always wanted to be an astronaut. This is the ultimate adventure: imagine seeing the Earth, the
most incredible place in the known universe, from the vantage point of orbit.  Just that thought leaves
me breathless. But let’s be honest about the chances of actually becoming an astronaut. Quite
literally and within the margins of error everyone that has attempted to be an astronaut fails.  Not only
do you have to be in top notch physical shape (in ways that you will have no idea about), but you
must also have developed over the preceding decade(s) skill sets that are at the forefront of your
chosen field and be ones that are a core requirement for the astronaut (these could change!).  That
requires a lifetime of dedication, hard work and belief.  And after all that, you just have to hope that
there will be a selection process during the years when you are at your prime! The last European
Space Agency (ESA) selection process was in 2007-8.  During that selection process nearly 10,000
highly skilled applicants from across Europe vied for just six places. This BBC Science series aims to
shine a light on this opaque but incredible process, showing the world how astronauts are chosen
using the same techniques as the actual selection process. The applications to get onto this series
numbered in the thousands; the final sixty candidates were then invited for a selection day in London.
Just a couple of weeks before the scheduled filming date, Chris Hadfield, a retired astronaut, selected
the final twelve. And I was one of them! How?

Having always been fascinated with space exploration I studied Aeronautical Engineering obtaining a
1 st class MEng degree from Loughborough University. I have been working in the field for ten years
across Europe, designing some of the most high tech aircraft currently flying. At present I’m
designing what could be the world’s first single stage to orbit spaceplane, a feat so difficult that
NASA have considered it to be the holy grail of space travel. But that’s only the half of it; to even
come close to becoming an astronaut candidate you need to have a wide skill set. Speaking for
myself I have spent over three years travelling in some of the hardest to reach places on the planet; at
university I joined a variety of clubs from breakdancing to mountaineering. It was the
mountaineering skills that I really pursued after university, becoming a mountain leader and leading
expeditions to over 5,000m up in the Peruvian Andes or on Baffin Island in the Canadian Arctic. My
professional explorations took me solo climb several 6,000+m mountains and be part of the first
British team to successfully cross the remote Penny Ice Cap on Baffin Islands, surviving temperatures
of -60C. This all helped me develop a variety of different soft and hard skill sets. It sounds like a lot!
But it isn’t if it’s the things you love to do. More importantly, I wasn’t born with these skills or
abilities. I had to work on them, starting at the bottom, and with hard work and a zest for learning I
taught myself these skills. It takes a lot of courage to pursue a direction that is out of the norm; this
courage to pursue what I really believe in comes from being brought up as a Jain. Growing up as an
ethnic minority in the UK with a belief system that is far removed from the general populace is a
challenge and it can be quite tempting to conform to the status quo for an easier life. But by not
doing so you can become incredibly strong mentally. Astronauts also need to be physically fit, not
only by being physically active but also by sleeping well and having a healthy diet. A lifelong
vegetarian, a few years ago I was invited to Saudi Arabia to give a talk on ‘Climate Change Through
The Eyes of a Polar Explorer’. Whilst researching for the talk I became vegan, since it became clear
that I could no longer reconcile my passion for the environment and my belief of ahimsa whilst eating
dairy. Since then I’ve been questioned many times about the ability to stay healthy and fit to do the
things I love on a vegan diet, same questions I was asked previously about my vegetarian diet! But as
those that saw Episode 1 of may have noticed, being vegan improves your physical fitness. It has
taken me a lifetime of challenging myself in ways I could never have imagined as a child, to be
selected for this competition. I am up against excellent candidates all with equally outstanding
achievements, so it’ll be an interesting few weeks. As for the real thing, an ESA astronaut selection
programme should only be a few years away.