A disabled man joins the European Space Agency’s astronaut programme

A disabled British man has been selected for astronaut training by the European space agency, a world first.

John McFall, 41, joined 16 men and women selected for the first new class of European Space Agency (ESA) astronauts in 13 years.

His right leg was amputated after a motorbike accident when he was 19. He became a professional athlete and represented Team GB at the Paralympics.

Another British woman, Rosemary Coogan, was chosen as a career astronaut.

Esa said he wanted to broaden the definition of what it means to have “the right stuff” to go into space.

This announcement does not mean that McFall is certain to go into orbit. Instead, it will be part of a feasibility program to see what the requirements would be to do so.

McFall, who won a bronze medal at the 2008 Paralympics in the T42 200 metres, said he was proud and grateful to be given the opportunity in “such a brave and daring project”.

The astronaut candidates and the European research ministers are attending a family photo

He told the BBC that he had never considered becoming an astronaut before but felt compelled to apply when he saw the opportunity.

“When Esa announced that they were looking for candidates with a physical disability to run this astronaut feasibility project, I looked at the person’s specification and it jumped out at me,” he said.

“I felt so inspired by it. I felt compelled to apply.”

Esa will work with NASA on the feasibility study. They must first establish that the inclusion of a para-dependent would not affect the safety of the team. It is also possible that adaptations will need to be made to the space vehicles in which they will travel.

“It’s really important to us that everyone who’s excited about space gets involved,” said Dr David Parker, Esa’s director of human and robotic space exploration.

“We are taking the first step by opening this call to people with certain types of physical disabilities, and we hope to fly them on a mission to the International Space Station,” he told BBC News.

John McFall competing at the 2008 Paralympic Games in the Men's 100m T42 Athletics Final

John McFall, from Surrey, competing at the 2008 Paralympic Games in the Men’s 100m T42 Athletics Final

Meanwhile, the five new “career” astronauts are guaranteed flights, assuming they meet their training. They were chosen from more than 20,000 applicants.

There was a significant increase in the number of women wanting to join the corps since the last recruitment in 2009, which contributed to the final selection. The director general of Esa, Josef Aschbacher, said that almost 50% of the recruits are women.

One of those is astrophysicist Rosemary Coogan, 31 years old, who was Britain’s first ESA astronaut.

Rosemary Coogan

Rosemary Coogan celebrating her recruitment with her new boss, David Parker, and mascot Esa Shaun the Sheep

Speaking to the BBC in Paris, Coogan said “Today is the start” and the training will be very exciting, adding that she and her teammates will be “all in it together”.

“I feel strongly about all the things that space can do for us,” she said.

It means Samantha Cristoforetti will no longer be Esa’s only female astronaut.

“I’m really happy that we finally have some new colleagues,” she said. “It’s going to be a much more diverse group, and I’m certainly looking forward to not being the only astronaut in the European astronaut corps. That’s important because the current makeup of our corps doesn’t reflect where we are in society. .”

The other Brit on stage in Paris was Meganne Christian, 34. She is “fit too” – a reserve and will only be called into the professional corps if there is a vacancy or the UK government pushes for it with additional funding. However, she has joint Australian citizenship with the UK, so there could be a route to space for her through the recently created Australian Space Agency.

Other career astronauts announced in Paris were:

  • Marco Sieber, from Switzerland

  • Raphaël Liégeois, from Belgium

  • Pablo Álvarez Fernández, from Spain

  • Sophie Adenot, from France

Their employment with Esa, and their two-year training programme, will begin in April next year.

As well as Wednesday’s astronaut show, Esa and its member states announced a €16.9bn (£14.7bn; $17.5bn) funding package for space programs over the next five years.

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