The European Space Agency selects an amputee astronaut to increase diversity

PARIS (AP) – The European Space Agency made history on Wednesday by selecting an amputee to be part of its new group of astronauts, complementing that with an unprecedented commitment to one day send a physically disabled person to the space.

John McFall, a 41-year-old former British Paralympian who lost his right leg in a motorbike accident aged 19, called his selection “a real turning point and mark in history”.

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

The newly created parastronaut joins five career astronauts in the final selection unveiled at a press conference in Paris that was the culmination of the agency’s first recruitment drive in more than a decade aimed at bringing diversity to space travel.

The selection included French Sophie Adenot and British Rosemary Coogan to respond to the fact that women in European space travel remain vastly underrepresented. There were, however, no people of color among the new recruits. The hiring campaign did not specifically address ethnic diversity, but emphasized at the time the importance of “representing all parts of our society”.

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

“I lost my leg over twenty years ago, I had the opportunity to be a Paralympic athlete and I really explored myself emotionally… All these factors and difficulties in life gave me confidence and strength – the ability to believe in myself that I can do anything I think about,” he added.

The feasibility study, which will last two to three years, will examine basic obstacles for a paraastronaut, including the impact of a physical disability on mission training and whether modifications to spacesuits and aircraft are required. .

ESA director of human and robotics exploration David Parker said there was still a long way to go for McFall, but described the new hire as a long-standing ambition.

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

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

“We’re saying John (McFall) could be the first parastronaut, that means someone who was selected through the regular astronaut selection process but has a disability that would normally rule 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 candidates who applied for the hiring campaign announced in February last year by the European equivalent of NASA, including more women than ever and some 200 people with disabilities applied.

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

Across the Atlantic, Houston takes note. Dan Huot, a spokesman for NASA’s Johnson Space Center, home to the US agency’s astronaut corps, told the AP that “we at NASA are following with great interest the process of selection of ESA para-astronauts”.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The 22 European members of ESA have also announced their commitment to “space ambitions” with a budget up 17%, or 16.9 billion euros over the next three years. It will finance projects as diverse as the fight against climate change or the exploration of Mars.

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