The European Space Agency chooses the first disabled astronaut recruit

These 17 astronaut candidates were among more than 22,500 candidates who submitted a valid application in 2021 in response to ESA’s request for new astronauts for missions to the International Space Station and beyond. (Photo: ESA / P. Sebirot)

The European Space Agency made history Wednesday by selecting an amputee to be part of its new crew of astronauts, supplementing him with an unprecedented pledge to one day send someone with a physical disability into space.

John McFall, a 41-year-old British former Paralympian who lost his right leg in a motorcycle accident when he was 19, called his selection “a real game changer and a mark on history”.

“ESA has committed to sending an astronaut with a physical disability into space… This is the first time a space agency has committed to a project like this, and it sends a really, really strong message to the humanity,” he said.

The newly minted parastronaut joins five career astronauts in the final selection unveiled during a Paris press conference that was the culmination of the agency’s first recruiting drive in more than a decade with the goal of bringing diversity to space travel.

The selection included France’s Sophie Adenot and Britain’s Rosemary Coogan to address the fact that women in European space travel remain grossly under-represented. However, there were no black people among the new recruits. The hiring campaign did not specifically address ethnic diversity, but at the time emphasized the importance of “representing all parts of our society”.

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File:John McFall of Great Britain wins bronze in the 100M T42 Final Pic Games 2008, China. (Photo by Julien Behal – PA Images/ via Getty Images)

McFall will take a different path than his fellow astronauts by participating in a groundbreaking feasibility study that explores whether physical disability will compromise space travel. To date, according to ESA, no major Western space agency has ever sent a parastronaut into space.

“I lost my leg over twenty years ago, had the opportunity to be a Paralympic athlete and really explored myself emotionally… All those factors and life’s hardships gave me confidence and strength — the ability to believe in myself that I can do anything that comes to my mind,” he added.

The feasibility study, which will last two to three years, will look at basic hurdles for a parastronaut, including how a physical disability might affect mission training and whether spacesuit and aircraft modifications are needed.

ESA’s director of human and robotic exploration David Parker said it was still a “long road” for McFall, but described the new recruitment as a long-held ambition.

Parker said it started with a question. “Maybe there are people out there who are almost superhuman in that they’ve already overcome the challenges. And could they become astronauts?”

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ESA Astronaut Class of 2022 Meganne Christian (L), John McFall (C) and Rosemary Coogan (R) pose during a ceremony to unveil the European Space Agency’s new career astronaut class in Paris on November 23, 2022. (Photo by JOEL SAGET/AFP via Getty Im

Parker also says he “thinks” it might be the first time the word “parastronaut” has been used, but “I don’t claim ownership.”

“We’re saying John (McFall) could be the first parastronaut, which means someone who’s been selected from the normal astronaut selection process but has a disability that would normally have ruled him out,” he said.

Parker said it would be at least five years before McFall would go into space as an astronaut, if successful.

The new recruits were among more than 22,000 applicants who came forward in the hiring push announced in February last year by NASA’s European equivalent, including more women than ever before and about 200 people with disabilities filed.

ESA specifically sought out people with physical disabilities, in a valiant effort to determine what adaptations space stations would need to accommodate them.

Across the Atlantic, Houston is taking notice. Dan Huot, a spokesman for NASA’s Johnson Space Center, home to the agency’s astronaut corps, told the AP that “we at NASA are watching ESA’s para-astronaut selection process with great interest.”

Huot acknowledged that “NASA’s selection criteria currently remain the same,” but said the agency looks forward to working with “new astronauts in the future” from partners like ESA.

NASA emphasized that it has a safety-conscious process for screening future astronauts who may be in life-threatening situations.

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

NASA has said future “assistive technology” could be a game-changer for “some candidates” to meet their stringent safety requirements.

The European agency received applications from all member countries and associate members, although the majority came from traditional heavyweights France, Germany, Great Britain and Italy.

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The two-day ESA council that took place Tuesday to Wednesday in Paris also saw France, Germany and Italy announce an agreement on Tuesday for a next-generation European space launch project as part of apparent efforts to better compete with SpaceX of Elon Musk and other missile programs in the United States and China.

ESA’s 22 European members have also announced their commitment to ‘space ambitions’ with a 17% budget increase, representing €16.9 billion over the next three years. It will finance different projects, from the fight against climate change to the exploration of Mars.

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Associated Press writer Marcia Dunn contributed to this story from Cape Canaveral, Florida.

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