Paralympian John McFall joins ESA as first astronaut with a disability


The European Space Agency (ESA) has for the first time selected a person with a physical disability to be part of the next generation of astronauts, in what it hopes is the first step towards sending a “parastronaut” to space.

John McFall, a 41-year-old British Paralympic sprinter who now works as a doctor, is one of 17 candidates chosen from 22,500 applicants to join the space agency’s astronaut class in 2022. The successful candidates will now complete a year of basic training in space technology, science and medicine at the European Astronaut Center in Cologne, Germany, before entering the next training phase of the space station, where they learn how to handle station elements and transport vehicles.

McFall will participate in ESA’s “Parastronaut Feasibility Project,” which the agency said in a statement was designed to “develop options for including astronauts with physical disabilities in human spaceflight and possible future missions.” While it can’t guarantee at this stage that McFall will be sent into space, the agency has said it will “try as hard and seriously as possible” to make it happen.

In addition to his medical training, McFall, who lost his right leg in a motorcycle accident aged 19, is a former sprinter who represented the United Kingdom at the 2008 Paralympic Games in Beijing, where he won bronze.

European space officials use the term “parastronauts” to refer to people who are are psychologically, cognitively, technically and professionally qualified to become astronauts, but have a physical disability that would normally prevent them from being selected due to the requirements imposed by the use of current space equipment.”

Through technical studies, space simulations, analog missions and discussions with the agency’s international space partners, the ESA hopes that McFall’s participation in the program will enable the agency to determine what it takes to physical disability to send into space.

“As an amputee, I never thought it was possible to become an astronaut,” McFall said in an interview on the ESA website.

“I am extremely excited about using the skills I have for problem solving, identifying problems and overcoming obstacles that will enable people with physical disabilities to perform work in the same way as their able-bodied counterparts,” he said .

McFall also said he wanted to find the answers to the practical questions posed by sending a person with a physical disability into space: “What actually happens to someone with a lower limb amputation in microgravity? What happens to their stump?”

McFall joins five career astronauts and 11 reserve astronauts. It is the first time since 2009 that the ESA is recruiting a new class of space explorers.

In a previous statement encouraging applicants with disabilities to apply for the programme, the ESA said that “society’s expectations of diversity and inclusion have changed”, and that “the inclusion of people with special needs has also means benefiting from their extraordinary experience, the ability to adapt to difficult environments and points of view.”

“Science is for everyone, and space travel can hopefully be for everyone,” McFall said.

In an interview with the Associated Press, NASA spokesman Dan Huot said the U.S. space agency was following the selection process across the Atlantic with “great interest,” but noted that “NASA’s selection criteria currently remain the same.”

“For maximum crew safety, NASA’s current requirements require that each crew member be free of medical conditions that could impair or aggravate the person’s ability to participate in spaceflight, as determined by NASA physicians,” Huot said. to AP.

The list of 17 candidates selected by the ESA this year also includes two women, France’s Sophie Adenot and Britain’s Rosemary Coogan, who will join another under-represented group in the space. Earlier this year, the agency announced that Italian astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti would become the first European female astronaut to become the commander of the International Space Station, 15 years after NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson became the first female space station commander in its history.

During their two-day council, the ESA also announced that its 22 members had committed to increasing the agency’s budget by 17 percent. director-general tweeted was equivalent to 16.9 billion euros ($17.6 billion) over the next three years. The agency said it plans to focus the next phase of its space exploration on low Earth, moon and Mars orbits.

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