This is a first in the history of space conquest. The European Space Agency (ESA), which is preparing to decide on the financing of its future programs, will give disabled people the possibility of becoming astronauts and flying in orbit.
This unprecedented project, called “parastronaut”, will be presented on Wednesday to the 22 Member States of ESA, which will also unveil, as soon as its budget is adopted, its new promotion of astronauts: between four and six elected from nearly 23,000 European candidates, who will will succeed the class of 2009, which includes French astronaut Thomas Pesquet. People with physical disabilities have so far been excluded from selections to become astronauts, which are known to be among the toughest.
“Disability is not a limitation”
“The parastronaut project requires a complete change of philosophy” on the notion of medical fitness, a concept of military origin intended to select combat pilots, explains to AFP Guillaume Weerts, chief doctor of astronauts within the ESA. At the launch of its recruitment campaign in February 2021, the agency announced that it would open the doors of space to one or more candidates with a disability in the lower limbs (due to an amputation or malformation congenital), and whose names could be revealed on Wednesday.
Are also eligible people measuring less than 1.30 meters or having an asymmetry of the legs. The intellectual and psychological skills required are the same as for other astronauts. “We dealt with a great group of candidates and met some great people,” testifies Guillaume Weerts, who took part in the various stages of the selection. The process has “demonstrated that disability is not a limitation, we really believe in it”.
Identify and overcome future difficulties
In parallel, the ESA has launched a “feasibility study” on sending a “parastronaut” on board a manned flight, for a stay in the International Space Station (ISS) for example. Because, in the extremely precise universe of space travel, even small modifications can become extremely complicated and expensive. The existing systems are for example designed for people of a certain size. How then to ensure “that a smaller person simply has access to the buttons? asks the ESA official.
The agency therefore plans to work with those selected to find the best way to identify and overcome these potential difficulties. Will the first disabled astronauts be able to fly quickly to low orbit? “Space is not an activity for people in a hurry”, replies Guillaume Weerts. The timetable is difficult to predict because “it really depends on what we are going to meet”, he underlines, specifying that a lot of work will remain to be done once the candidates have been selected. But, potentially, a disabled astronaut could be sent into space “potentially within the next ten years”.
“Don’t aspire to be an astronaut”
Kamran Mallick, chief executive of British charity Disability Rights UK, said the project was “incredibly exciting”, given that people with disabilities “are excluded from so many great things that humanity achieves”. “If we really want to explore the Universe, we must accept that it cannot be reserved for a particular group of individuals”, commented Kamran Mallick, welcoming ESA’s approach of working with astronauts to find out their needs.
“I’m in a wheelchair and it’s much better when people ask me what works for me, what I need, rather than making assumptions about what someone can or can’t do,” he testified. He remembers dreaming as a teenager of becoming an astronaut while watching the launch of a space shuttle. “Of course, I was quickly told that this would not happen: ‘don’t aspire to become an astronaut,’ I was told… Today I regret not having pursued my dream”.