PARIS (AP) — The European Space Agency made history Wednesday by selecting an amputee as one of its newest batch of astronauts, complemented by an unprecedented commitment to sending someone with a physical disability into space one day.
John McFall, a 41-year-old former British Paralympic athlete who lost his right leg in a motorcycle accident when he was 19, called his selection “a real turning point and a milestone 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 very, very strong message to the humanity,” he said.
The brand-new paraastronaut joins five career astronauts in the final roster revealed at a press conference in Paris, the culmination of the agency’s first recruiting drive in more than a decade to bring diversity to space travel.
The selection included Sophie Adenot from France and Rosemary Coogan from the UK to address the fact that women in European space are still severely under-represented. However, there were no persons of color among the new recruits. The recruitment campaign did not address ethnic diversity specifically, but emphasized the importance of “representing all parts of our society” at the time.
McFall will follow a different path from his other fellow astronauts by participating in a groundbreaking feasibility study exploring whether physical disabilities hinder space travel. According to the ESA, no major Western space agency has ever sent a parastronaut into space to date.
“I lost my leg over twenty years ago, I had the opportunity to be a Paralympic athlete and really explored myself emotionally… All those factors and hardships in life have given me confidence and strength — the ability to believe in myself that I can do anything I set my mind to,” he added.
The feasibility study, which will run for two to three years, will examine the basic hurdles for a parastronaut, including how a physical disability might affect mission training, and whether spacesuit and aircraft modifications are needed.
ESA’s Director of Human and Robotic Exploration David Parker said it was still a “long way” for McFall, but described the new recruit as a long-held ambition.
Parker said it started with a question. “Maybe there are people who are almost superhuman because they have already overcome challenges. And could they become astronauts?”
Parker also says he “thinks” it might be the first time the word “parastronaut” has been used, but “I’m not claiming ownership.”
“We’re saying that John (McFall) could be the first paraastronaut, that is, someone selected through the normal astronaut selection process, but happens to have a disability that would normally have ruled him out,” he said.
Parker said it would take at least five years for McFall to go into space as an astronaut — if successful.
The new recruits were among more than 22,000 applicants to the recruitment drive announced last February by the European equivalent of NASA, which included more women than ever and some 200 people with disabilities.
ESA specifically looked for people with physical disabilities, for a bold attempt to determine what modifications to space stations would be needed to accommodate them.
On the other side of 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 ESA’s para-astronaut selection process with great interest.”
Huot acknowledged that “NASA’s selection criteria currently remain the same,” but said the agency looks forward to working with the “new astronauts in the future” from partners such as the ESA.
NASA emphasized that it has a safety-conscious process for vetting prospective astronauts who may find themselves in life-threatening situations.
“For maximum crew safety, NASA’s current requirements require that each crew member be free of medical conditions that may impair or aggravate the person’s ability to participate in space flight, as determined by NASA physicians,” Huot added. please.
NASA said future “assistive technology” could change the game for “some candidates” to meet their stringent safety requirements.
The European office received applications from all member countries and associate members, although most came from traditional heavyweights France, Germany, Great Britain and Italy.
During the two-day ESA council to be held in Paris from Tuesday to Wednesday, France, Germany and Italy also announced an agreement on Tuesday for a next-generation European space launch project as part of apparent efforts to better compete with Elon Musk’s SpaceX and other rocket programs in the US and China.
The 22 European members of the ESA also announced their commitment to “space ambitions” with a budget increase of 17%, amounting to €16.9 billion over the next three years. It will fund projects ranging from tackling climate change to exploring Mars.
Associated Press writer Marcia Dunn contributed to this story from Cape Canaveral, Florida