BERLIN (Reuters) - The European Space Agency hopes to hire and launch the world's first physically disabled astronaut and several hundred would-be para-astronauts have already applied for the role, ESA head Josef Aschbacher told Reuters on Friday.
The 22-member space programme has just closed its latest decennial recruitment call for astronauts and received 22,000 applicants, Aschbacher said.
"We would like to launch an astronaut with a disability, which would be the first time ever," the Austrian added. "But I'm also happy for ESA because it shows that space is for everyone, and that's something I'd like to convey."
The ESA, whose Ariane rocket once dominated the market for commercial satellite launches, faces ever stiffer competition from tech-funded upstarts like Jeff Bezos's Blue Origin and Elon Musk's SpaceX.
Amazon founder Bezos hopes next month to become the first man to go into space on his own rocket, highlighting the growing role tech billionaires are playing in a field that was once dominated by public agencies.
"Space is developing extremely fast and if we don't catch up with this train we are left behind," he added, outlining plans to refashion the agency as a more entrepreneurial player ready to work with venture capitalists to help grow European start-ups that could one day rival the Silicon Valley players.
The challenges are immense: the ESA's 7 billion euro budget is a third of NASA's, while its seven or eight launches a year are dwarfed by the 40 carried out by the United States.
Aschbacher, who grew up staring at the stars above his parents' mountain farm in Austria, himself once applied to become an ESA astronaut when he was a student. But what was once a geeky, niche enthusiasm has now become mainstream, he said.
This year's job ad attracted almost three times the 8,000 applications received a decade ago, and a quarter of them were women, up from just 15% before. The ESA has promised to develop technologies to ensure those with disabilities, like shortened legs, play a full part.
And those astronauts will go beyond the International Space Station: some will deploy to the United States's planned Gateway station on the moon, while the ESA's member states are considering an invitation from Chinese and Russian space agencies to participate in their similar moonbase project.
Could European astronauts one day be serving simultaneously on two different moonbases at once?
"The invitation is on the table and it's a very nice idea," he said.
(Reporting by Thomas Escritt; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)