Disabled man joins the European Space Agency’s astronaut program

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 European Space Agency’s (ESA) first new class of astronauts in 13 years.

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

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

Esa said it 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 guaranteed to go into orbit. Instead, he will be part of a feasibility program to see what the requirements are to make that happen.

McFall, who won a bronze medal in the T42 200m at the 2008 Paralympic Games, said he was proud and grateful to have been given the opportunity in “such a brave and daring project”.

He told the BBC he had not considered becoming an astronaut before, but felt compelled to apply when he saw the opportunity.

“When Esa announced they were looking for candidates with physical disabilities to lead this astronaut feasibility project, I looked at the person specification and it just jumped out at me,” he said.

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

Esa is working with NASA on the feasibility study. They must first determine that the inclusion of a para-astronaut does not compromise the safety of the crew. It’s also possible that the space vehicles they travel in need modifications.

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

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

John McFall competing in the 2008 Paralympic Games in the men's 100 m T42 Final athletics event

John McFall, from Surrey, competing in the 2008 Paralympic Games in the men’s 100m T42 Final athletics event

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

The number of women wanting to join the force was significantly higher than at the last recruitment in 2009, and this had an impact on the final selection. Esa Director General Josef Aschbacher said nearly 50% of recruits were women.

One of them is astrophysicist Rosemary Coogan, who became the first British female Esa astronaut.

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

“I just feel really strong about all the things that space can do for us through the pursuit of knowledge itself in terms of how we came to be, the conditions of life, how that affects the human body and what could happen to us. happen when we are no longer in those conditions for the practical applications of space technology, which we use every day in Europe,” she said.

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

“I’m just too happy that we finally have some new colleagues,” she said. “It will be a much more diverse group and I am certainly looking forward to not being the only female astronaut in the European Astronaut Corps anymore. That is important because the current composition of our corps does not reflect where we are in society.” .”

The announcement of the new astronauts was made here in Paris at the Grand Palais Éphémère, where Esa member states met to determine the agency’s programs and budget for the next three to five years.

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