The last frontier: a person with a disability could become a ‘parastronaut’ – Copyright AFP Yuri CORTEZ
The first astronaut, or astronauts, with a physical disability could be announced as early as Wednesday, according to the European Space Agency.
People with physical disabilities have previously been barred from one of the most exclusive and demanding jobs on Earth, and beyond, due to strict screening requirements.
Guillaume Weerts, ESA’s head of space medicine, told AFP the agency’s “parastronaut project” required “a complete change of philosophy” on the concept of medical fitness, which originally stemmed from the military and pilot selection. of combat.
After conducting a feasibility study, ESA said potential candidates could include people who have lower limb impairments, either from amputation or congenital defects.
Shorter people up to 1.3 meters (4.3 ft) tall or those with different leg lengths were also eligible to apply.
The educational and psychological requirements for the candidates remained the same as for any other astronaut. Applications closed in June 2021.
ESA is expected to name between four and six new European astronauts, without disabilities, during its ministerial council in Paris on Wednesday.
While Weerts said the parastronaut project is developing somewhat separately, “there is a real possibility that one or more people with disabilities will also come forward as part of the announcement.”
– ‘Disability is not a limitation’ –
In the extremely precise world of space travel, even small modifications can become extremely complicated and expensive.
For example, existing systems are designed for people of a certain height, Weerts said.
“What does that mean for someone who is a size smaller? How can we make sure that person can reach the buttons?
ESA plans to work with those who are selected to find the best way to overcome such potential challenges.
As a member of the selection panel, Weerts was unable to reveal details about particular candidates.
But he said “a great group of people” had applied and worked their way through the selection process.
“We have met absolutely wonderful people,” he said.
The process was an excellent “demonstration that disability is not a limitation,” he added.
“It really is something we all believe in,” he said, adding that there was a high level of commitment to the project from ESA’s partners.
So when might the first astronauts with a disability take off?
“Space is not a business for people in a hurry,” Weerts said.
The timeline is hard to predict because “it really depends on what we find,” he said, adding that much more work will take place once ESA has selected its candidates.
But he did say that an astronaut with a disability could launch into space “potentially in the next 10 years.”
– ‘Incredibly exciting’ –
Kamran Mallick, chief executive of the charity Disability Rights UK, said the project was “incredibly exciting”.
“People with disabilities are excluded (from) big aspects of everything we do in the world,” he told AFP.
“If we’re really going to explore the universe, we have to accept that we can’t just have it for a particular group of individuals.”
Mallick praised ESA’s plan to work with astronauts to determine exactly what they need.
“I am a wheelchair user, and it is much better for people to ask me what works for me, what I would need, rather than making assumptions about what someone else can or cannot do,” he said.
Mallick said that as he watched a space shuttle launch as a teenager, he dreamed of becoming an astronaut.
“Of course, they quickly told me that was not going to happen. Don’t aspire to be an astronaut,” she said.
“I wish I had chased him now.”