European Center Shifts Emphasis to Deep Space Missions

The European Astronaut Centre (EAC), located in Cologne, Germany, was established in 1990 by the European Space Agency (ESA) and its Member States for the selection, training, medical support and flight assignments of the European astronaut corp. It has become the ‘home’ of European astronauts.

Human spaceflight is one of the key activities undertaken by ESA on behalf of its Member States and optimal health, as well as physical and technical training of astronauts, is crucial to the success of the human spaceflight programme.

The EAC ‘Integrated Team’ is a model for cooperation between ESA, Member States (those with specific competencies in human spaceflight) and industry teams; despite the different affiliations of the team members, they show extraordinary dedication to the common tasks.

EAC has unique training, medical operations and astronaut operations/support expertise in Europe. While currently focused on the International Space Station (ISS) programme, a large part of EAC’s competencies is relevant for any future human spaceflight programme and its operational experience is a particular asset, having a heritage in spaceflight from earlier decades.

EAC is now also focused on future exploration beyond the ISS and low Earth orbit (LEO) operations, and is actively developing collaborative programmes related to deep space exploration missions.

Fit for spaceflight

EAC’s Space Medicine Office aims to minimise risks to the health of astronauts throughout their professional careers.

The office is tasked with ensuring astronauts are physically fit for spaceflight and keeping them healthy before, during and after space missions. It also develops programmes for preventive health as well as human behaviour and performance, and provides medical training and support to astronauts,

Its activities can include medical certification during the pre-flight mission, or protecting work/rest schedules and monitoring sleep and exercise programmes through inflight activities, as well as taking care of primary care on landing, the co-ordination of rehabilitation team and clinical treatments/assessments.

Although the medical practice of the office has traditionally been ISS-oriented, it is now focusing on exploration with a strong foresight activity on technology and processes that will be needed for exploration missions.

Astronaut training

Optimal health, as well as physical and technical training of astronauts, is crucial to the success of human spaceflight

The Astronaut Training division has the responsibility for providing training to all ISS astronauts and cosmonauts in relation to ESA contributions to the ISS programme. This includes the analysis of astronaut tasks and definition of training objectives, considering the planning and scheduling of their tasks and flight assignments.

The division is also in charge of the preparation and implementation of training programmes for space missions to the ISS, developing the curricula, courses and lessons, and defining the criteria for selection, training and certification of instructors.

This involves the definition of the requirements for training facilities: the training hall, the Columbus training facilities and the Neutral Buoyancy Facilities, as well as their maintenance.

In order to maintain its established expertise and to prepare for the future, EAC also:

  • continuously ensures the high quality of its services and improves its underlying skills and tools by considering technological and medical progress (e.g. virtual reality training technologies, new rehabilitation techniques) as well as lessons learned from the astronauts
  • acquires new competencies related to astronaut operations, training and space medicine in order to achieve a more independent and stronger European position in these areas
  • performs the ‘Direct Return’ of European astronauts (i.e. return of ESA astronauts to EAC/Cologne immediately after landing in Kazakhstan), which also enhances the visibility of ESA’s human spaceflight programme to the general public
  • establishes EAC as ‘Crew Operations Support’ (ECOS): a cross-divisional team of operations experts integrating and testing ISS operations hardware in domains of crew operations or astronaut health, including both in-house and external developments
  • concentrates on ESA activities that are closely related to the performance and operational tasks of astronauts that benefit from synergies with EAC expertise and increasing overall ESA efficiency. A team of EAC operators/instructors and astronauts support systematic design reviews and operations readiness reviews of hardware that will later be operated by ESA astronauts
  • pursues and further develops complementary training tools which offers additional training opportunities and provides a platform for cooperative astronaut training activities with international partners.

Future space exploration

Congruent with international exploration roadmaps, EAC is evolving for the transition from ISS exploitation towards future deep space human exploration programmes and operational scenarios.

For example, it is expanding its training and medical skills and tools with respect to the requirements of future human exploration missions, such as developing skills and tools that are relevant for more autonomous astronaut operations and inflight training; surface EVA (extravehicular activity) operational concepts; and exploration-related medical aspects such as space radiation, psychological aspects, medical autonomy, telemedicine. These are domains that will occur in exploration scenarios beyond LEO.

A number of initiatives have been undertaken towards this objective, aimed at demonstrating important technologies at EAC, bridging the gap between science and operations, and looking for simultaneous Earth/Space applications.

Analogues have been developed to provide similar physical conditions to those that would be experienced in extreme space. These offer a wide spectrum of possibilities for utilisation for multiple operations and technology testing, training and biomedical research.

Underwater space

EAC initiatives are aimed at bridging the gap between science and operations, and looking for simultaneous Earth/Space applications

During an EVA, astronauts work in a stressful environment performing complex tasks, so a high level of training is one of the keys for success. The best environment for EVA training on Earth is underwater, because it provides a neutral buoyancy, simulating microgravity, and so EAC built the Neutral Buoyancy Facility (NBF) which includes a water tank, mock-ups and scuba diving equipment.

EAC is currently studying an infrastructure evolution of the NBF in order to develop EVA simulation capabilities in a Moon 1/6 G simulated gravity. In the near future, it will be possible to define exploration objectives and identify typical exploration tasks on the Moon.

NEEMO (NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations) is the NASA undersea space analogue used for operational testing and environment research and technology. As a partner, ESA-EAC is participating in the space or surface exploration mission operations, EVA procedures and technology testing, including ESA experiments such as Aquapad, which aims to filter water cheaply and easily using a new type of biomimetic membrane that copies nature, and Nutritional Assessment, examining nutrition for astronauts in extreme environments.

CAVES (Cooperative Adventure for Valuing and Exercising human behaviour and performance Skills) is a scientific exploration mission deep underground in the Sa Grutta caves of Sardinia, Italy. It is aimed at training astronauts in an ISS-representative environment, bringing a multi-cultural crew of astronauts face-to-face with situations and stresses very similar to spaceflight. Even beyond ISS, the concept of this analogue allows the improvement of operations effectiveness and safety.

Complementing CAVES, Pangaea is a field geology and geo-microbiology training course focusing on developing knowledge and skills for planetary geology and astrobiology so that astronauts can be effective partners to scientists and engineers for the definition of geological robotic/human exploration scenarios and operations.

Artificial lunar analogue

The LUNA European Exploration Laboratory is a lunar analogue test facility for the development and validation of lunar surface operations and part of ongoing developments to address future exploration challenges. It is being built in collaboration with the German Aerospace Centre (DLR) in Cologne with a half-spherical fully-enclosed dome structure housing the testbed and a habitation element.

The structure will have a diameter of 34 m and the effective surface operations area is projected to be approximately 900 m2, including experiment preparation areas. The testbed will comprise a lunar regolith simulant sourced from the local Eifel region volcanic and basalt sources, which provides a satisfactory mechanical and compositional simulant.

The simulant testbed area is planned to be 50 cm in depth, although the surface terrain and source simulant is expected to be reconfigurable, depending on specific experimental requirements. Modular scaffolding will be placed within the facility to allow for dynamic lighting conditions.

LUNA will have a configurable communication structure (e.g. implementation of a delay tolerant network, wired and wireless protocols) and will integrate with the existing EAC control centres. Access to the facility will be provided via two large opening doors to facilitate the entry of large payloads.

This surface analogue will primarily support ESA activities in the domain of rover simulations such as within the framework of METERON (Multi-Purpose End-To-End Robotic Operations Network), human-machine interface testing and Spaceship EAC activities (see below) e.g. demonstration/validation of In Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU) tools.

LUNA is also being developed to address the need within the EU to provide a lunar analogue facility that can be readily made available to research groups and exploration-focused stakeholders, while benefiting from the operational expertise present within EAC and the larger DLR campus. The facility is expected to be operational by May 2018.

Spaceship EAC

The best environment for extravehicular activity (EVA) training is underwater because it provides a neutral buoyancy, simulating microgravity

This project is aimed at investigating innovative technological and operational concepts in support of ESA’s exploration strategy which, in accordance with the Global Exploration Roadmap, foresees a sequence of increasingly complex missions to cislunar space and the lunar surface.

Initial robotic exploration missions will be followed by robotic/human cooperation (robots on the surface controlled by astronauts in orbit) and eventually by human surface missions. Spaceship EAC utilises the operational experience of EAC with the goal of developing operational concepts and low technology readiness level (TRL) technologies in support of lunar human exploration and habitation scenarios.

Moreover, Spaceship EAC has facilitated the creation of an expanding European network of universities and research facilities cooperating on relevant topics. EAC is now a participant in ESA’s Networking/Partnering Initiative (NPI) and welcomes proposals from universities and research organizations in ESA Member States for doctoral and post-doctoral research in technical domains relevant to the Spaceship EAC project such as in-situ resource utilisation (‘living off the land’), energy production and storage, materials and additive manufacturing, water processing and waste management, simulation and virtual reality, robotics and human-robotic interaction, and life support and habitability.

Taken together these initiatives improve the skills and facilities already present at EAC, building upon the unique assets and expertise to make EAC the centre within ESA for human exploration operations and vital space medicine activities.

About the author

Victor Demaria-Pesce MD, PhD is a Senior Scientific Adviser to the Head of the European Astronaut Centre (EAC) of the European Space Agency (ESA). He is a Director of Research of Inserm (French National Institute of Health and Medical Research). He is involved in the foresight of technological and scientific innovations that may represent the European contribution to the medical systems for exploration.

The author thanks his colleagues Frank De Winne, A. Diekmann, G. Weerts and A. Cowley for their invaluable contribution to this article.




Image Credit: ESA/EAC, Cologne, Germany / Room


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