BERLIN • The European Space Agency (ESA) hopes to hire and launch the world's first physically disabled astronaut, and several hundred would-be para-astronauts have already applied for the role, ESA head Josef Aschbacher said.
The 22-member space programme has just closed its latest decennial recruitment call for astronauts and received more than 22,000 applicants.
"We would like to launch an astronaut with a disability, which would be the first time ever," Dr Aschbacher told Reuters on Friday. "But I'm also happy for ESA because it shows that space is for everyone, and that's something I'd like to convey."
The ESA, whose Ariane rocket once dominated the market for commercial satellite launches, faces ever stiffer competition from tech-funded upstarts like Mr Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin and Mr Elon Musk's SpaceX.
The challenges are immense: the ESA's €7 billion (S$11.2 billion) budget is a third of Nasa's, while its seven or eight launches a year are dwarfed by the 40 carried out by the United States.
Dr Aschbacher, who grew up staring at the stars above his parents' mountain farm in Austria, said he applied to become an ESA astronaut when he was a student. But what was once a geeky, niche enthusiasm has now become mainstream, he said.
This year's job advertisement attracted almost three times the 8,000 applications received a decade ago, and a quarter of them were from women, up from just 15 per cent before.
The ESA has promised to develop technologies to ensure that those with disabilities, like shortened legs, play a full part.
And those astronauts will go beyond the International Space Station: some will be deployed to the US' planned Gateway station orbiting the Moon, while the ESA's member states are considering an invitation from Chinese and Russian space agencies to participate in their similar moonbase project.