European Space Agency selects amputee astronaut to increase diversity

PARIS (AP) – The European Space Agency made history Wednesday by choosing an amputee to be among its newest astronauts, complementing it with an unprecedented commitment to one day send someone with a physical disability into space.

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

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

The newly minted paraastronaut joins five career astronauts in the final selection revealed during a news conference in Paris, which was the culmination of the agency’s first recruiting effort in more than a decade aimed at bringing diversity to space travel.

The selection included France’s Sophie Adenot and Rosemary Coogan from the UK to address the fact that women in European space travel are still grossly underrepresented. However, there were no people of color among the recruits. The recruitment campaign was not specifically about ethnic diversity, but at the time emphasized the importance of “representing all sections of our society”.

McFaul will follow a different path than his fellow astronauts by participating in a pioneering feasibility study investigating whether a physical disability will affect space travel. To date, no major Western space agency has ever put an astronaut in space, according to ESA.

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

The feasibility study, which will take two to three years, will examine key obstacles for an astronaut, including how a physical disability might affect mission training and whether modifications to spacesuits and aircraft are needed.

ESA’s Director of Human and Robotic Exploration, David Parker, said it was still a “long way” for McFaul, but described the new hire as a long-term ambition.

Parker said he started with a question. “Maybe there are people out there who are almost superhuman as they have already overcome challenges. And could they become astronauts?’

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

“We’re saying that John (McFall) could be the first astronaut, that means someone who is selected by the regular astronaut selection process but happens to have a disability that would normally disqualify him,” he said.

Parker said it would be at least five years before McFaul goes into space as an astronaut — if he succeeds.

The recruits were among more than 22,000 applicants who appeared in a recruitment drive announced in February last year by Europe’s NASA counterpart, including more women than ever before and about 200 people with disabilities.

ESA specifically sought out people with physical disabilities in a bold effort to determine what adaptations would be necessary on space stations to accommodate them.

Across the Atlantic, Houston scores. Dan Huot, a spokesman for NASA’s Johnson Space Center, which houses the US agency’s astronaut corps, told the AP that “we at NASA are watching the ESA 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 “young astronauts in the future” from partners like ESA.

NASA emphasized that it has a safety-conscious process in place to screen future astronauts who may be put 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 or be aggravated by spaceflight, as determined by NASA physicians” , Huot added.

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

The European body received applications from all member states and associate members, although most came from traditional heavyweights France, Germany, Britain and Italy.

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

ESA’s 22 European members also announced their commitment to “space ambitions” with a 17% budget increase — representing €16.9 billion over the next three years. It will fund projects as diverse as tackling climate change to exploring Mars.

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