Europe names world’s first disabled astronaut

PARIS, Nov. 23 (Reuters) – The European Space Agency on Wednesday declared the first-ever “parastronaut”, an important step towards enabling people with physical disabilities to work and live in space.

The 22-nation agency said it had selected former British Paralympic sprinter John McFall as part of a new generation of 17 recruits chosen for astronaut training.

He will participate in a feasibility study designed to enable ESA to assess the conditions needed for people with disabilities to participate in future missions.

“It was quite a whirlwind experience considering that as an amputee I never thought being an astronaut was a possibility, so excitement was a huge emotion,” McFall said in an interview on ESA’s website.

He will enter training alongside five new career astronauts and 11 reserve astronauts after ESA replenished its astronaut ranks for the first time since 2009.

ESA last year placed openings for people who are fully capable of passing the usual rigorous psychological, cognitive and other tests, which are only prevented from becoming astronauts because of the limitations of existing hardware in light of their disability.

It received 257 applications for the role of an astronaut with a disability, a parallel role it calls “paraastronaut”.

The disability equality charity Scope described his selection as “a big step forward”.

“Better representation of people with disabilities in influential roles will really help improve attitudes and remove the barriers many people with disabilities face today,” said Alison Kerry, the charity’s head of communications.

After a motorcycle accident that left his right leg amputated at the age of 19, McFall went on to win the 100m bronze medal at the 2008 Beijing Paralympic Games.

The 31-year-old doctor will help ESA engineers design hardware changes needed to open up professional spaceflight to a larger pool of qualified candidates, the agency said.

“I think the message I would like to give to future generations is that science is for everyone and space travel can hopefully be for everyone,” McFall said.

Reporting by Tim Hepher and Yiming Woo, additional reporting by Kylie MacLellan in London; Edited by Nick Macfie, William Maclean

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