Can Technology Open Spaceflight to Disabled Astronauts?

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What would it be like to have a spaceship with a truly diverse crew—not the mix of alien species seen in so many sci-fi series, but human beings with all kinds of bodies? The European Space Agency announced in early February that it is recruiting a new pool of four full-time and 20 reserve astronauts for upcoming missions to the International Space Station, as well as future international missions to the moon. The agency promises the new astronaut class will be more gender-diverse than ever, and will seek qualified individuals with certain disabilities.

During a press conference two weeks ago, ESA officials told reporters the agency would open its upcoming application pool to include candidates who have a lower limb deficiency in one or both legs or feet, either congenitally or due to amputation; people who have differences in the lengths of their legs; or people who are less than 130 centimeters (4 feet, 3 inches) tall. This new height standard is considerably shorter than NASA’s existing requirement that astronauts must stand between 5 feet, 2 inches and 6 feet, 3 inches. All ESA astronaut candidates also need to have at least a master’s degree in a science, technology, or engineering field, or have training as a test pilot, and be younger than 50 years old.

ESA spokesperson Marco Trovatello says the application process, which opens March 31 and continues through May 28, is just the beginning for the so-called “parastronaut” program. The last time the agency had astronaut openings, they received more 8,000 applications. Trovatello says that agency officials consulted with both NASA and the International Paralympic Committee before making the announcement. “We have informed all our ISS partners regarding our intent,” Trovatello wrote in an email to WIRED. “But we have to run the feasibility study first.”

After selecting astronaut candidates from its 22 European member states, ESA officials will spend the next few years figuring out how to make a parastronaut program work with its US and Russian partners, and what internal spacecraft modifications might be needed. The agency has its own Ariane 5 rocket, but not a spacecraft that can carry astronauts. The ESA is overseeing the development of the European Service Module, the part of NASA’s Orion spacecraft that will provide air, electricity, and propulsion during a future Orion flight to the moon and back. That means any disabled astronaut would have to ride inside a spacecraft operated by NASA, Russia’s space agency, or a private firm like SpaceX.

(While the ESA’s search marks the first time a government-run space program has recruited astronauts with disabilities, private industry already has at least one celebrity example: Cosmologist Stephen Hawking experienced a few minutes of weightlessness during a zero-G airplane flight in 2007 and was preparing to fly on Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo spacecraft before his death in 2018.)

Aerospace engineering experts and former astronauts say the push for diversity is welcome in a universe of explorers who have been mainly male, and that the concept of a parastronaut will open the door to a population that has mostly been ignored when it comes to space exploration. “There shouldn’t be any reason why space travel should be limited to people without disabilities,” says Cheri Blauwet, an assistant professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation at Harvard Medical School and a former Paralympic athlete. “Just as we seek diversity in every other place, why shouldn’t we see diversity in space?”

In fact, some differences among astronauts that would be apparent on Earth would disappear in the zero-G environment of space or the one-sixth gravity found on the moon. On Earth, “the purpose of a prosthesis is to provide the function of gravity and support body weight,” Blauwet says. But, she continues, “in a zero-gravity environment, much of that would be mitigated, and you could use something much simpler in space.”

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