malaga. Many children dream of what they want to be when they grow up, but it never progresses beyond a dream. Being an astronaut, of course, is one of the favourites, but no more than 700 people have ever travelled into space and returned to tell the tale. This is one of the most exclusive professions in the world. So, how does one get a job that is never advertised anywhere?
Álvaro Soria is 26 years old, 1.85m tall and slim. Many have described him as "brilliant" and Forbes magazine has already included him as one of the 100 most influential young scientists. After leaving San Estanislao de Kostka school in Malaga he went to the Polytechnic in Madrid to study Science and Aerospace Technologies. He graduated with flying colours in four years, and came to the attention of María Paz Zorzano, an eminence in the aerospace sector and associate professor at the Lulea Technological University in Sweden. She is leading an ambitious project to develop a mechanism which improves fuel saving in the satellites that gravitate in orbit. Álvaro didn't think twice about her offer, and was taken on by the Swedish institution.
At the same time as his research, he is also working on his doctoral thesis, which he will be presenting in March. It is based on an even more ambitious project: the ExoMars 2020 mission. If all goes according to plan, in June the Russian Space Agency Roscosmos will launch a lander to Mars. It will be fitted with an instrument developed by Álvaro. The project is called 'Habit', from its initials, and is also being led by María Paz Zorzano. The aim is to find out more about the habitability of the red planet. The work, he admits, has not been easy.
"The 'Habit' is part of the ExoMars 2020 project, a mission which is being carried out jointly by the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Russian Federal Roscosmos Space Agency, to look for life on Mars. It consists of a rover, the Rosalind Franklin, and a surface platform called 'Kazachok',which is where the instrument is placed. The instrument consists of a meteorological station which will be used to demonstrate and measure, for the first time, the transitory existence of liquid water on the surface of the planet. Water is essential for life, as we know from the Earth," Álvaro explains.
Despite his achievements, he remains modest. He knows he is part of a very competitive world. However, the question has to be asked: is he going to be the first astronaut from Malaga? "No," he says. Not for the moment, anyway.
"Planetary exploration is what fascinates me, and I want to focus my efforts on the scientific aspect. I like building instruments and being able to work on solving problems for the aerospace industry," he says. The idea first attracted him when he was 14 and he decided to take it further.
There are other talented youngsters, of course, but when German astronaut Matthias Maurer was looking for someone to expand his research team at the European Astronaut Centre (EAC) in Cologne, he selected Álvaro. Nobody from Malaga has ever been closer to the moon.
Under direct tutelage of the ESA, he has taken part in several experiments into the viability of a permanent installation on the surface of the moon. "It was an incredible experience. You have breakfast in the café with astronauts. You see them train in the swimming pool at the centre, and preparing for zero gravity," he recalls.
If anything characterises aerospace research, it is the high costs involved. Álvaro says people don't understand the return on the investment. "On average, it costs each European citizen six euros a year, and in return they get TV, 4G services, safe communications, hospital instrumentation and a lot more," he says.
The space race has evolved considerably. The Cold War has given way to collaboration between space agencies from different countries. NASA, ESA and Roscosmos now work together to save on costs. "I'm convinced my generation will see a permanent, inhabited base on the moon," says Álvaro, who would love to contribute to that. The particles are accelerating. After ExoMars 2020, NASA already has other plans: in 2024, an astronaut will set foot on the red planet.