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Belgium gets first astronaut in 20 years: Raphaël Liégeois joins European Space Agency

14:37 24/11/2022

Raphaël Liégeois, a 34-year-old man from Namur with an impressive background in numerous sciences, has been accepted into the European Space Agency’s (ESA) next class of astronauts.

This means that Liégeois stands a very good chance of becoming the next Belgian in space, 20 years after Frank De Winne and 30 years after Dirk Frimout.

Liégeois was selected from more than 22,000 candidates from 25 European countries in ESA’s most recent recruiting round.

His background includes studies in engineering sciences and fundamental physics, plus biomedical sciences. Liégeois’ PhD is in medical brain imaging, and he earned it studying under top neurologist Steven Laureys, among others.

Apart from being a qualified physicist, engineer and biomedical scientist, he is also a neuroscientist who has studied in multiple countries, from the United States, France and Belgium to Singapore and Switzerland.

But like most of the candidates ESA seeks out, Liégeois’ talents are not exclusively related to the realm of hard sciences. He also plays multiple instruments (including piano, organ and guitar) and engages in circus arts.

He is also a gifted runner and swimmer, and pilots hot air balloons. Like so many Belgians, Liégeois has a passion for cycling: in 2017, he and his partner cycled all the way from Singapore to their hometown of Namur.

ESA has also chosen four other professional astronauts, apart from Liégeois: Sophie Adenot from France, Pablo Alvarez Fernandez from Spain, Rosemary Coogan from the UK and Marco Sieber from Switzerland.

Each will receive a permanent contract as an astronaut for ESA and will begin a one-year training programme in spring next year.

“The selection process already took 18 months, and I can imagine that was stressful, but only now is the real work beginning,” said ESA science coordinator Angelique Van Ombergen.

“They now start with basic training in Cologne. That will be a broad training, covering topics such as: What is ESA like? How does international spaceflight work and how does a space mission happen? After that, they will attend international training courses. There they will gain more specific knowledge: spacewalks, navigation and learning robotic techniques.”

Only after training is completed will it be determined who participates in which future space missions.

“As soon as an astronaut is assigned to a mission, they will also undergo training for that, which can take one to two years,” Van Ombergen explained.

Liégeois’s first mission could take place between 2026 and 2030, probably to the International Space Station (ISS).

"I am very happy and proud to have been invited to become an astronaut, and I am also very lucky to be surrounded by all these candidates,” Liégeois told Le Soir.

“The selection process was truly an exceptional adventure; to see the enthusiasm of thousands of European candidates was completely crazy. I committed myself to a career in science to shape a better world tomorrow, and that is also why I applied for the astronaut position.

"The message I would like to bring to all generations, especially the youth, is that science is really beautiful. There is a lot of room for creativity, and science will be central to meeting the challenges we collectively face as humanity.”

Another 11 astronauts will be on a reserve list and remain available for possible temporary missions.

This latest recruiting round from ESA included a focus on attracting women candidates, and a candidate with a physical disability. Of the 17 new astronauts, eight are women and nine are men.

“ESA really wants to capitalise on diversity,” said Van Ombergen.

“I think we were still a bit behind on that. By including more women, we can better understand what happens to their bodies and that also helps us in biomedical research to help them prepare and keep them healthy.”

ESA is also hoping to gain insights into how space flight can be adjusted to accommodate astronauts with physical disabilities, and chose British candidate John McFall, who lost his leg in a motorbike accident at the age of 19.

McFall successfully passed the same rigorous selection process as every other chosen candidate.

Written by Helen Lyons