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Strong motivation, the ability to deal with irregular working hours, frequent travel and long periods away from home, coping under pressure. These are psychological and emotional traits required in many careers, but crucial for someone hoping to embrace life in space.

The European Space Agency (ESA) adds other minimum requirements to the list: candidates must be nationals of Member States or Associate States, have at least a master’s degree and three years’ professional experience in natural sciences, medicine, engineering, mathematics or computer science, they must be fluent in English and conversant with other non-native languages.

After a gap of 13 years, the ESA is recruiting again, with a view to future missions to the Moon, or even to Mars, and is also keen to include more women in the team. In October 2022, dreams may come true for a select group who score highest in a gruelling sequence of technical, cognitive, motor coordination and personality tests, individual and group exercises, medical tests and interviews. There are four to six vacancies for full-time astronauts, twenty vacancies for reserve astronauts and one entirely unprecedented vacancy for an astronaut with a physical disability.

João Lousada is a flight director at the International Space Station (ISS) and an analogue astronaut, taking part in missions that simulate living conditions on the red planet.

Portuguese João Lousada, who can claim to have gone to Mars without leaving Earth, is one of the candidates. He is a flight director at the International Space Station (ISS), analogue astronaut and commander of analogue missions to Mars for the Austrian Space Forum. In other words, he takes part in missions that simulate living conditions on the red planet and that are used to prepare for future expeditions.

This entails spending weeks in isolation, under the weight of a 50-kilogramme spacesuit and in hostile environments. All this serves to test technologies and equipment and to identify all the possible problems in order to anticipate difficulties and challenges that may arise. He was born in Lisbon, but it was the starry sky during summer holidays in Bouçã, his grandparents’ village in northern Portugal, that attracted him to space. He completed a master’s degree in Aerospace Engineering at Instituto Superior Técnico, and started working as a volunteer for the Austrian Space Forum in 2015.

That year, he was one of five analogue astronauts selected out of a hundred applicants, in a process involving more than 600 individual tests. João Lousada’s first job as an aerospace engineer was in building weather satellites for a German company. He soon moved to the International Space Station, where he started working as a systems controller for the Columbus Module: he operated thermal controls and functions in the life support and electrical systems from the base in Munich.

ESA Astronaut Selection 2021-2022 keeps the dream of going to Mars alive for João Lousada.

In 2019, he was appointed head flight controller at the German Space Operations Centre. At the age of 32, he took on the job of managing the work of astronauts 400 km above the surface of the earth, coordinating the teams responsible for planning the missions, for the location of equipment and for communication with the astronauts on board. In short, he is in charge of their safety.

As an analogue astronaut (taking part in missions on earth that simulate the environment on other planets), he has joined missions on Austrian glaciers, in the Oman desert (on the Arabian Peninsula) and in Israel. João Lousada likes to say that “the astronauts at the ISS are our hands in space”. Now it’s his turn to be those hands: “I’m ready and I believe I have a good chance”. Parachuting and diving qualifications are points in his favour. His goal is to make his dream of being a space explorer come true, and to find the answers to questions such as whether we are alone in the universe or whether there has been life on other planets.