The Almost Astronaut

  • Dr. Peter Woditschka
  • October 15, 2020

Millions of young men and women dream about becoming an astronaut. Ten years ago, 8,413 Europeans applied to become astronauts. Peter Woditschka was among the 22 shortlisted candidates, but not among the six finalists selected to go to space. We met with him to learn about his experiences during that exciting year.

What motivated you to become an astronaut?
There was a space flight program between Austria and the former Soviet Union in the 1990s which fired up my dreams about going into space. On Austrian was invited by the Soviets to fly to the Russian space station MIR. I was closely following this program in the media. Shortly after Franz Viehboeck flew to MIR as the first ever Austrian citizen in space, he visited a number of Austrian schools. I was able to see one of his presentations about his space flight, and had the opportunity to speak with him. This, I would say, was the final push that I needed to do everything I could to prepare for what came later—the astronaut selection process.

How did you become a participant in this aerospace program, and nearly an astronaut? What is your professional background?
ESA generally looks for a scientific background — in medicine, engineering or natural science—or (ideally in addition to) a piloting background. The concrete criteria is not extremely strict. Rather, ESA says that it is not so important what exactly you do—you should just be very good at what you are doing. I studied electrical engineering and worked in research and development for four years, after which I joined McKinsey & Company, where I stayed for two years and gained managerial experience. I was also a passionate pilot. I started off as an amateur, then thanks to a lucky coincidence, I began working as an airline pilot exactly one year before the astronaut selection process started. I still work as an airline pilot a few days a month, between consulting and teaching. I spent many years preparing as well as I could for my potential selection as an astronaut; I learned Russian, obtained a degree as a paramedic, and learned how to dive.

Which experience was the most memorable during the program? 
Maybe it wasn’t the experience itself that was so memorable, but the expectation of what potentially could lie ahead in my future. The further we progressed as astronauts, the more we realized that our dreams could come true and that we might be part of something that we’d only ever seen on TV.

What are the differences between working in space and working on Earth?
Besides the obvious weightlessness, there are quite a few differences that are relevant to astronauts. For example, it is not always immediately clear how to describe fundamental directions that are obvious on Earth. “Move up a bit” is something a photographer on Earth says naturally. On Earth, walls occupy the side of a room, and floors and ceilings are always at the bottom and the top of a room. This is just one small example in which spaceflight needs a little bit of re-thinking. This is, of course, also something that I love about my consulting assignments. “Thinking outside of the box” is something a consultant must be particularly good at when serving clients with out-of-the-ordinary problems.

What does the selection process for becoming an astronaut look like? 
The entire selection lasted for around one year, with a new selection phase every few months. At the beginning, ESA launched a media campaign in April 2008 to broadcast their search for new astronauts. With a total of 8,413 applications for just six posts, it’s obvious that my odds were not the highest, so I always focused only on the next selection phase to come.

The first phase involved a CV screening. Around 1,000 candidates made it past this stage, with almost 90% kicked out from the get-go. The second phase took place at the DLR (German Aerospace Centre) in Hamburg. This phase consisted of similar tests to the so called “DLR-Test” for fellow airline pilot applicants. We had to undergo many psychomotricity tests on computerized equipment, which tested our reaction time, hand-eye-coordination, spatial orientation, mathematical abilities, etc. 192 candidates made it to the next phase. This third phase consisted of psychological and psychiatric tests, as well assessing abilities through tasks similar to classic assessments for managerial positions. This was also candidates’ first time having a face-to-face interview with an active astronaut.

I’ll always remember when the French astronaut Jean-François Clervoy discussed with me how I might spend my spare time aboard the International Space Station (ISS). I told him how I love cycling, to which he replied with a story about cycling on his own flight into space upside-down, with a view that looked out onto Earth, spinning in the same direction that he himself was cycling. He had the feeling that he was cycling around the globe, continent by continent, in a matter of minutes. After this phase, the pool of candidates shrank from 192 to 45. I was lucky enough to be among those last 45. We were sent to Cologne for an entire week of ISS-astronaut medical exams. I can’t think of any sort of exam that wasn’t performed on us. After a week of intense and sometimes uncomfortable tests (including eye specialists positioning instruments directly onto my eyes, and then the colonoscopy), 22 of us found out that we were fit enough to be recommended as astronauts. What followed were the final interviews by the top managers at ESA, and a process of matching the candidates’ different characteristics in order to find the best fitting group of new astronauts. In our internal candidate mailing list, the so-called “ESA 45 list” with all the participants from the medical week, we dubbed the finalists “the lucky six”. I don’t know whether the rumors were correct, but I heard that citizenship was the ultimate deciding criteria, giving most applicants from small countries a low chance of success. In any case, I was not selected. This is actually the only serious regret of my professional career. Even now, almost a decade later.

How did you feel when you heard the results?
As I said, the pure mathematical probability of being among the final six contestants was very low. Even if you are among the best of the candidates, the final decision is out of your personal control. I was well aware of this throughout the selection process. The result was nothing but the most likely outcome. Still, I was very disappointed. During that whole year of getting closer and closer to a very ambitious goal, I formed a more realistic view of what my future as an astronaut would actually look like. When ESA told me that I was not among the “lucky six”, they also told me that there was a remote chance that they might need additional astronauts in the future. My first difficult task after the rejection was to work out how I could turn away from the disappointment and away from the unattainable hope of a reversal of ESA’s decision, and focus on the positives of that exciting year.

How do you return to every-day life after this extraordinary experience? 
I didn’t have a plan for what I would do if the program ended without having made it through. My mindset was that I must do everything in my power to make my destiny a reality. This was my goal, and I had given myself no way back. A lot of my previous hobbies were in one way or another related to astronaut training — scuba-diving, for example. I had loved it before beginning the selection process, but it became much less appealing afterwards. It reminded me of that “so near, yet so far” feeling. That hurt. So, I decided to focus on totally new things in my life, both in my professional and private life. I became father of a lovely daughter shortly after the program. I reduced my hours as an airline pilot to part-time, and relaunched my academic career. As a direct result of the media coverage from the astronaut selection, I was offered the role of guest lecturer in Electrical Aircraft Systems and Controlling & Strategy, which is quite a unique combination at the University of Applied Sciences Joanneum Graz. And – after a few years in airline management – I started my own business as a self-employed consultant. For now, the possibility of becoming an astronaut is once again light years away, just as it was in my childhood. But now at least I’ve got some stories to tell about the adventure I had. I’m also still in contact with the astronauts from that year who were selected — Luca Parmitano even sent me an email from space. That in and of itself was quite an extraordinary experience. Still, it was bittersweet, and there was perhaps a little sorrow in my heart that I was receiving the email, and not sending it.

How did this experience influence your work life? 
Both experiences of nearly becoming an astronaut and of flying as a pilot have trained me in many skills that are helpful in consulting situations. One example of this is my focus on systematic-decision processes. Very often, business situations are not 100% clear, so decisions are often deferred due to a lack of information. But what is often overlooked is that in many cases, the information you get is never 100% clear.

Not deciding is ultimately worse than choosing an acceptable alternative. It’s the same thing when you’re sitting in an aeroplane cockpit. If one of the two engines  stops working, it is important to choose a suitable alternate airport. You do not have the time to deliberate over which airport is better. If you do not decide at all, you end up with an empty fuel tank. Therefore, pilots are trained to come up with a feasible plan in the face of any kind of uncertainty.

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