Dr. Peter Woditschka

Dr. Peter Woditschka

  • is an engi­neer with more than four years’ expe­ri­ence in rese­arch and deve­lop­ment, followed by over 10 years of consul­ting and manage­ment expe­ri­ence. This began at McKinsey, followed by a period as Head of Control­ling, and finally as an inde­pen­dent manage­ment consul­tant with a focus on marke­ting stra­tegy, lean opera­tion, merger and post-merger inte­gra­tion, and orga­ni­sa­tion. He is also a passio­nate pilot and works part time as an Airline Pilot at Austrian Airlines. Curr­ently, he is an external lecturer at the Univer­sity of Applied Sciences Joan­neum in Graz.

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Why did you dream of beco­ming an astro­naut? What was the moti­va­tion?

There was a space flight programme 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 programme 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 an inter­na­tional consul­ting firm, McKinsey & Company, where I stayed for two years and gained mana­ge­rial expe­ri­ence. Along­side my life as an engi­neer and consul­tant, I was a passio­nate pilot. I started off as an amateur, then by lucky coin­ci­dence, I began working as an airline pilot exactly one year before the astro­naut selec­tion started. I still work as an airline pilot a few days a month, between consul­ting and teaching. Besides the primary assets, like science and flying, I spent many years prepa­ring as well as I could for my poten­tial selec­tion as an astro­naut; I learnt Russian, obtained a degree as a para­medic, and learnt how to dive.

Which expe­ri­ence was the most memo­r­able during the programme? Were there any expe­ri­ences you found diffi­cult?

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, as a group of astro­nauts, progressed along the way to beco­ming astro­nauts, the more we realised that our dreams could come true and that we might be part of some­thing that we’d only ever seen on TV. The images in our minds were famous world­wide, like the Apollo astro­nauts walking across the bridge into their Saturn V-Rocket, or the explo­ding Chal­lenger. Quite an extreme repre­sen­ta­tion of the best to worst case scen­ario spec­trum.

What kind of dyna­mics exist in space?

Even beside 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 just 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 consist of? What tasks must aspi­ring astro­nauts under­take?

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 compu­te­rised equip­ment, which tested our reac­tion time, hand-eye-coor­di­na­tion, spatial orien­ta­tion, mathe­ma­tical abili­ties, and so forth. 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, he told me, 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 only outsider-chances. In any case, for whatever reason, I didn’t make the final selec­tion. 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 the entire way through, that it was only a very remote chance. 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 an ever 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, quite diffi­cult, task after the “no-go” was to work out how I could turn my view away from the disap­point­ment and away from the unat­tainable hope of a reversal of ESA’s deci­sion, and focus on getting a posi­tive view on that very exci­ting year.

How do you return to every-day life after this extra­or­di­nary expe­ri­ence? What was that like? Did you have a plan?

I didn’t have a plan for what I would do if the programme 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 programme. I reduced my hours as an airline pilot to the part-time minimum, and relaun­ched my academic career. In fact, as a direct result of the media reports made from my astro­naut selec­tion, 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 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 has this expe­ri­ence influ­enced your work life? More speci­fi­cally, what impact has this had on your work as a consul­tant?

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 in an aero­plane 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 empty fuel tanks and a crash. There­fore, pilots are trained to come up with a feasible plan within given cons­traints and uncer­tain­ties.

What was the result of this adven­ture? What can you tell someone who has expe­ri­enced similar disap­point­ment?

What ulti­mately came out of my year in the astro­naut selec­tion programme, besides some doors that opened with regard to my career, were deep insights to the funda­mental questions “What creates happi­ness in life”. I studied up on some astro­nauts’ careers and disco­vered some­thing inte­re­sting: There was an Apollo astro­naut who walked on the moon and had signi­fi­cant psycho­lo­gical problems follo­wing this expe­ri­ence. You might wonder, if it was always his dream to become an astro­naut, what could be more satis­fying than flying to the moon? That’s much, much more than anyone else on Earth with the same dream could ever expe­ri­ence, so he should be one of the happiest people on Earth. But, ironi­cally, he wasn’t for many years.

The lite­ra­ture says that mainly two things created nega­tive feelings for him. Firstly, he knew with almost total certainty that the most exci­ting day in his life had already happened. Secondly, he was not actually the very first man to step on the moon. He is not the man refe­renced in history books across the world. So, what I learned from that was that it might be important to be involved in a value-crea­ting process rather than reaching the ulti­mate goal — whatever that is. My advice to people looking for satis­fac­tion and happi­ness in life is to engage in activi­ties that you deem worthwhile. You can still reach for the stars, but try to do it in a way that creates happi­ness along the way, inde­pen­dent of whether the final outcome is exactly what you wished for or imagined.

Dr. Peter Woditschka

Dr. Peter Woditschka

  • is an engi­neer with more than four years’ expe­ri­ence in rese­arch and deve­lop­ment, followed by over 10 years of consul­ting and manage­ment expe­ri­ence. This began at McKinsey, followed by a period as Head of Control­ling, and finally as an inde­pen­dent manage­ment consul­tant with a focus on marke­ting stra­tegy, lean opera­tion, merger and post-merger inte­gra­tion, and orga­ni­sa­tion. He is also a passio­nate pilot and works part time as an Airline Pilot at Austrian Airlines. Curr­ently, he is an external lecturer at the Univer­sity of Applied Sciences Joan­neum in Graz.

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