The European space agency receives the 1st parastronaut

PARIS (AP) – The European Space Agency made history Wednesday by selecting an amputee to be among its newest batch of astronauts, completing an unprecedented commitment to one day send a person with a physical disability into space. out.

John McFall, a 41-year-old former British Paralympian who lost his right leg in a motorbike accident when he was 19, called his choice a “landmark and a mark in history”.

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

The newly-sworn parastronaut joins five career astronauts in the final selection revealed during a news conference in Paris that was the culmination of the agency’s first recruitment drive in more than a decade aimed at diversifying space travel.

The selection included Sophie Adenot of France and Rosemary Coogan of the United Kingdom to address the fact that women in European space travel are still under-represented. However, there were no colored people among the new recruits. The recruitment drive did not specifically address ethnic diversity, but at the time the importance of “representing all parts of our society” was stressed.

McFall will follow a different path than his fellow astronauts by taking part in a pioneering feasibility study that will investigate whether physical disability will affect space travel. To date, no major Western space agency has ever put a parastronaut in space, according to the ESA.

“I lost my leg about twenty or more years ago, I had the opportunity to be a Paralympic athlete and I did an emotional exploration of myself… All those factors and hardships in life gave me confidence and strength — the ability to believe in my life. myself that I can do anything I put my mind to,” he said.

The feasibility study, which will last two to three years, will examine the fundamentals for paraastronauts including how a physical disability may affect mission training, and whether modifications to spacesuits and aircraft are needed.

ESA’s Director of Human Exploration and Robotics, David Parker, said it was still a “long road” for McFall but described the fresh recruitment as a long-held ambition.

Parker said he started with a question. “Maybe there are people out there who are almost supernatural in that they have already overcome challenges. And could they be astronauts?”

Parker also says he thinks this may be the first time the word “parastronaut” was used, but “not a claim of ownership.”

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

Parker said it would be at least five years before McFall goes into space as an astronaut — if he succeeds.

The new recruits were among more than 22,000 applicants who came forward in the job drive announced by the European equivalent of NASA in February last year, including more women than ever before and around 200 people disabled in.

ESA specifically sought out people with physical disabilities, for a bold attempt to figure out what adaptations would be necessary for space stations to accommodate them.

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

Huot acknowledged that “NASA’s selection criteria remain the same for now” but said the agency is looking forward to working with “future new astronauts” from partners such as the ESA.

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

“For maximum crew safety, current NASA requirements require that all crew members be free of medical conditions that could impair a person’s ability to participate in spaceflight, or be exacerbated by spaceflight, such as determined by NASA physicians,” Huot said.

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

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

A two-day ESA council held from Tuesday to Wednesday in Paris also saw France, Germany and Italy announce an agreement on Tuesday for a new-generation European space launcher project as part of apparent efforts to compete more Elon Musk’s SpaceX and other rocket programs in the US and China are preferred.

The 22 European members of the GCE also announced their commitment to “space ambitions” with a budget increase of 17% – that’s 16.9 billion euros over the next three years. It will fund projects as diverse as tackling climate change and exploring Mars.


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

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