The Antrim woman preparing for new role as astronaut

Rosemary Coogan has joined the European Space Agency’s astronaut corps as its Artemis programme aims for a presence on the moon before a mission to Mars

Astrophysicist Rosemary Coogan is coming to the end of her time at the French space agency, CNES. “In my current role, I’ve got a couple of projects to finish,” the 32 year old explains, including a James Webb Space Telescope project, which will definitely keep her busy over coming months. But her life now feels “a little bit split”, this because she devotes her time now between finishing up her research and being one of the five new career astronauts for the European Space Agency (ESA) – a role she takes up full time in April.

Coogan’s appointment was announced in November by the ESA’s director general Josef Aschbacher. On that day, the names of the five new career astronauts were shared alongside 11 astronaut reserves and one astronaut with a physical disability (aka para-astronaut).

“It was just, yes, an absolutely wonderful feeling,” Coogan recalls. “You rehearse being chosen as a career astronaut or as a reserve or as nothing. You process all of these possibilities in your head beforehand. I’d got my hopes up really, really high. And they were fulfilled! I was so grateful for that.”

To clarify, the astronaut reserves are not yet engaged by the ESA directly through a permanent contract, but they will be available for future astronaut activities. And the role of para-astronaut is part of a feasibility study to see if people with physical disabilities could fly in space.


While Coogan was born in Northern Ireland, she is supported by the UK Space Agency and, as such, is a UK astronaut. Some might say it is one step closer to having an ESA astronaut from Ireland and Coogan is proud of her Antrim roots. “I was born in Belfast,” Coogan explains. “I still have family in Northern Ireland and I spent a lot of my youth travelling there for all of the big holidays. But I grew up in the south of England, hence my accent,” she laughs.

The announcement was the culmination of an 18-month search, and four phases of selection rounds for the ESA’s 17 new recruits. The process began in May 2021 when 22,523 applications were submitted from the ESA’s member states. Of those applications, 276 were from Irish candidates; 198 male and 78 female – including me.

The process of astronaut selection was a huge task. Antonella Costa was the human resources focal point at the ESA for the initiative. “Overall, more than 150 people supported the whole process,” Costa says. “It was a challenge at times. Covid restrictions were in place across Europe bringing all the travel limitations and additional health measures into play.” It took many months for the ESA to process the large volume of applications in a painstakingly slow process but it seemed to know what they were looking for.

Which prompts the question: what were they looking for? “Despite their different backgrounds and experiences, all were well-rounded professionals,” Costa says. “They showed adaptability, were able to keep their temper under stress; were great team players, but could take the lead if needed; they were curious, and above all they shared the same love and enthusiasm for human exploration.”

She was unable to provide data on Irish applicants beyond what had already been reported in the first selection phase. “During the different phases of the selection we were focusing on the candidates as individuals. Although I do recall having met an Irish candidate during the psychological phase (phase two) who said that he would feel extremely proud to become an ESA astronaut. He had received so much support from his community. This was really nice to see.”

With a respectable research career in astrophysics, Coogan has two master’s degrees in physics and astronomy and a PhD in astronomy. But it is her curiosity and enthusiasm for science and space that particularly stands out. “I think the more you learn about anything, the more you realise you don’t know,” she admits. “I’ve always been a bit of a question asker. It drives some people a little bit crazy. My job here in CNES is to essentially look at images of galaxies and I really love trying to imagine what space actually looks like.”

The agency is cognisant of the value of astronauts as role models and Coogan is delighted for the opportunity to champion science in her new role. “I think that science and Stem [science, technology, engineering, maths] and space should not be gendered,” she adds. “I know that it’s a priority for ESA, and I hope that younger people now will start to think of these roles in less kind of stereotyped ways.”

Led by Nasa along with the ESA, the Japanese and Canadian space agencies, the most significant component of the Artemis strategy is a moon-orbiting outpost called the Gateway

At Nasa Kennedy Space Centre in April 2022 for Samantha Cristoforetti’s launch to the International Space Station (ISS), ESA director general Aschbacher outlined the calibre of the candidates who were then in phase three of the process.

“Diversity is written in capital letters in my agenda 2025,” he said. “We are down now to a little less than 400 candidates. And out of those, 40 per cent are women. So females are doing extremely well in the selection process.” This trend continued all the way through the remaining phases, ending up with almost gender parity across the chosen 17 men and women.

On the selection process, Coogan said: “There’s a huge amount of luck involved. I think what they really wanted were people they felt they could connect with. Because there were so many psychological elements and so much talking, I think the selection process was really just about finding people that they felt could work within the team.”

Coogan has joined ESA astronaut corps at a particularly exciting time. David Parker, the ESA’s director of human and robotic exploration, outlines the future plans for the agency: “The long-term plan is Mars. So we’re building now the Artemis programme, the first phase to establish a sustainable human presence on the moon and then onwards to Mars by the 2030s.”

Led by Nasa along with the ESA, the Japanese and Canadian space agencies, the most significant component of the Artemis strategy is a moon-orbiting outpost called the Gateway.

Last December the mission achieved a milestone when Artemis I, an SLS rocket and Orion capsule assembly successfully completed a 26-day un-crewed orbit of the moon. It was a long time coming, almost five years behind schedule and billions over budget.

But with this achievement, it now paves the way for future crewed Artemis missions. “It’s a very proud moment for Europe to be on the critical path for getting humans back to the moon and beyond,” Parker says. “We know we will have three European astronauts flying on Orion to the Lunar Gateway and we’re helping build that. And right now we’re in those discussions of how are we going to get European boots on the moon before the end of this decade. That’s our dream.”

In April Coogan will begin her year of basic training. Joining her will be French helicopter pilot Sophie Adenot, Spanish engineer Pablo Álvarez Fernández, Belgian neuroscientist Raphaël Liégeois and Swiss doctor Marco Sieber. Then they join the current six career astronauts and prepare for their first mission, to the ISS, orbiting 400km above us, or perhaps even to the moon, more than 384,400km from Earth.

How does Coogan feel to one day leave our planet? “It’s very hard to describe,” she says. “I mean, I don’t know what my mission will be. Will it be the ISS or will it be Gateway? At this stage, we don’t know but no matter what the mission, I am incredibly excited. I find it very difficult to put into words now how I think I’ll feel when I leave our planet. But I think that’s why we do it, because it’s beyond what we can really sometimes put into words.”