HE Space CEO Claudia Kessler, founder of "Die Astronautin," joins some of the candidates in Berlin. (Die Astronautin/Juliana Socher)
— The search is on for Germany's 12th astronaut to fly into space.
After Americans and Russians, more Germans have been launched into orbit than astronauts from any other country — a total of eleven since 1978. But from Sigmund Jähn to Alexander Gerst, all eleven of the space fliers have been men. Now a private effort is underway to find, train and fly the first German woman to the International Space Station by 2020.
"We thought that after eleven German men, it is time for a woman to fly into space," Claudia Kessler, the CEO of HE Space, an aerospace recruitment agency, told NBC News.
Since launching "Die Astronautin" (The Female Astronaut) in March, HE Space has narrowed its initial applicant pool to a list of 120 candidates. Germany's space agency, DLR (Deutschen Zentrums für Luft- und Raumfahrt), has joined the effort to help conduct the additional screening needed to identify the finalists.
Biochemist Amelie Schoenenwald, 26, is competing to become the first German woman in space. (Die Astronautin/Juliana Socher)
To be eligible for Die Astronautin, women were required to be German nationals between the ages of 27 and 37, with a degree in engineering or science (or equivalent military credentials). Applicants needed to be in good physical and psychological shape and have a professional or personal interest in aerospace or aviation.
The original call for Die Astronautin applications produced 408 qualified candidates — a 32 percent increase over the number of German women who applied (but who were not selected) for the European Space Agency's 2009 class of astronauts. On Sept. 14, after reviewing the applicants and conducting interviews by video conference, HE Space held a public event in Berlin, where about 70 out of the total 120 candidates appeared.
Since then, the women have been further refined to 86 top qualified candidates who will next be subjected to medical and psychological aptitude tests at the German Aerospace Center in Cologne.
HE Space secured the sponsorships and funding needed to promote the program, bring the candidates together and run the selection in conjunction with DLR. Two finalists are expected to be announced in March 2017.
How and when the chosen candidate will launch to space is still to be determined. HE Space modeled its program on past recruitments run by Malaysia and South Korea, which included those countries purchasing seats aboard Russia's Soyuz spacecraft for short stays on the space station.
Roscosmos, Russia's federal space corporation, recently decided to reduce its crew size on the station from three to two cosmonauts. The move could result in seats becoming available on the Soyuz, though it is not yet clear how many empty seats, if any, would be on short-term "taxi" flights of the type a Die Astronautin candidate could fly.
HE Space still needs to identify and secure the commercial sponsorships or other sources of funding to underwrite the mission. DLR hasn't said if it plans to contribute financially to the flight.
Ariane Wyen, 30, is among the Die Astronautin candidates who are already in the aerospace industry. (Die Astronautin/Juliana Socher)
HE Space has not released its short list of 120 candidates, but some of the women have been identified by German media and some have identified themselves through social media, including by joining a private Facebook group.
Most of the candidates who have come forward are about 30 years old. Many of them work in aerospace or related professions, in line with the competition's requirements. In press statements, HE Space officials said the candidates include a fighter pilot, aerospace engineers, scientists and doctors.
Based on interviews conducted on behalf of collectSPACE, the candidates include a mix of women who have harbored a life-long ambition to fly in space but thought they would never get the chance to those who have been drawn to the International Space Station as the ultimate research lab, to those who were curious to enter the program and see how far their talents could take them.
At least two major European aerospace companies have a number of employees among the group of 120, including satellite provider OHB with six, and Airbus with five.
Among the Die Astronautin candidates are:
Anna Metz and Ariane Wyen, both 30, who are engineers involved on the manufacture and testing of satellites with OHB, Bremen.
Jovana Dzalto, 31, a research assistant at the Institute for Composite Materials in Kaiserslautern, who holds a degree in mechanical engineering. Dzalto is working on the development of a new infrared heating method for natural fiber reinforced polymers for the thermoforming process.
Maren Klement, 31, holds a Master of Science in advanced materials and manufacturing from Aalen University. She is completing her PhD through Glasgow Caledonian University while working at the Institute of Material Science and Matworks GmbH, both in Aalen.
Marion Dziwniki, 30, from the small town of Sankt Goarshausen, studied mathematics and physics and completed her doctorate in mathematics at the Technical University of Berlin. She is currently a researcher at Weierstrass Institute for Applied Analysis and Stochastics in Berlin. Dziwnik is also a top class road racing cyclist, who competes across Europe.
Katharin Schopen, 29, a doctoral candidate in the Helmholtz Space Life Sciences Research School at the German Aerospace Center in Cologne, holds a masters degree in life and medical sciences. Schopen is already a veteran test subject of DLR physical studies on the tilt table, centrifuge and in psychological studies.
Fiona Thiessen, 32, a PhD student at the Natural History Museum in Stockholm, currently involved in studies of lunar rocks collected by the Apollo 12 mission.
Carmen Koehler, 36, holds a PhD in physics of the atmosphere. Having previously worked at the German Aerospace Center and DWD (German Weather Service), she now works at I-EM (Intelligence in Energy Management) in Italy.
Liv Heinecke, a PhD student at the Alfred Wagner Institute of Polar and Marine Research, and a former visiting research fellow at the University of Manchester from 2014 to 2015.
Jessica Koschate, 30, an exercise physiologist at the Institute of Physiology and Anatomy at German Sport University in Cologne.
Elke Hipler, 38, a geographer from Hannover who studies the potential use of wind farms for energy generation. Hipler is also a former elite rower, who competed for Germany in the 2004 and 2008 Olympic Games and in world championships.
Friederike Benning, 28, currently in the final year of PhD studies in biophysics and structural biology at the Biozentrum in Basel, having previously graduated in interdisciplinary sciences at ETH Zurich.
Marja Seidel, 28, PhD in astrophysics at the Instituto de Astrofisica de Canarias. She is now a researcher at the Carnegie Observatories in Pasadena, California.
Amelie Schoenenwald, 26, holds Masters degrees in biochemistry and industrial biotechnology from the Technische Universität München and is currently a PhD student in the field of integrative structural biology at Max F. Perutz Laboratories in Vienna.
Olivia Stodieck, University College London graduate and aerospace engineer, currently completing her PhD at the University of Bristol.
Margarita Thomas, 32, graduated as a mechanical engineer with specialization in the field of space technology from the Technical University of Dresden, worked for ESA as a propulsion engineer and is currently working as propulsion systems engineer at Harwell, UK.
In addition, German media reports have identified Captain Nicole Baumann, 31, a German Air Force fighter pilot and Cordula Pflaum, a Lufthansa Airbus captain, as among the initial group of candidates.