PARIS (AP) – The European Space Agency made history Wednesday by selecting an amputee who lost a leg in a motorcycle accident to be part of its new crew of astronauts – a leap towards its pioneering ambition to send someone with a physical disability in space.
John McFall, a 41-year-old Briton who lost his right leg when he was 19 and went on to compete in the Paralympics, called his selection to Europe’s response to NASA “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 that a space agency has committed itself to undertaking a project like this. And it sends a really, really strong message to humanity,” she said.
The neo-parastronaut joins five career astronauts in the final selection unveiled during a Paris news conference, the conclusion of the agency’s first recruiting campaign in more than a decade aimed at bringing diversity to space travel.
The list also included two women: Sophie Adenot of France and Rosemary Coogan of Britain, new ambassadors for another very underrepresented section for European astronauts. A small minority of those who have explored space have been women, and most of these were American.
Wednesday’s list, however, did not include people of color. The hiring campaign did not specifically address ethnic diversity, but at the time emphasized the importance of “representing all parts of our society”.
McFall will take a different path than his fellow astronauts as he participates in a groundbreaking feasibility study that will examine whether physical disability will compromise space travel. It’s an uncharted land, since no major Western space agency has ever sent a parastronaut into space, according to ESA.
Proudly speaking amidst flashes of emotion, McFall said he was uniquely suited to the mission due to the vigor of his mind and body.
“I am very comfortable in my skin. 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.
“I never dream of being an astronaut. It was only when ESA announced that they were looking for a physically disabled candidate to undertake this project that it really piqued my interest.”
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, for example, whether spacesuit modifications are needed and to planes.
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 have already overcome the challenges. And could they become astronauts?
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.
It will take at least five years for McFall to go into space as an astronaut, if he’s successful.
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.
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 to €16.9 billion over the next three years. It will finance different projects, from the fight against climate change to the exploration of Mars.
Associated Press writer Marcia Dunn contributed to this story from Cape Canaveral, Florida