Europe names the world’s first disabled astronaut

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PARIS, Nov 23 (Reuters) – The European Space Agency on Wednesday named the first-ever “parachute craft” in a major step towards allowing people with physical disabilities to work and live in space.

The 22-nation agency said it had selected former British Paralympic sprinter John McFall as part of a new generation of 17 recruits selected for astronaut training.

He will participate in a feasibility study designed to allow ESA to assess the conditions necessary for people with disabilities to participate in future missions.

“It’s been quite a whirlwind experience, as an amputee I never thought being an astronaut was a possibility, so excitement was a huge feeling,” McFall said in an interview on ESA’s website.

He will join five new career astronauts and 11 reservists in training after ESA replenished its astronaut ranks for the first time since 2009.

ESA last year announced openings for people who are fully capable of passing the usual rigorous psychological, cognitive and other tests, who are only prevented from becoming astronauts by the limitations of existing hardware in light of their disabilities.

It received 257 applications for the role of an astronaut with a disability, a parallel role it terms a “parastronaut”.

Disability equality charity Scope described his election as “a huge leap forward”.

“Better representation of disabled people in influential roles will really help improve attitudes and break down the barriers many disabled people face today,” said the charity’s head of communications, Alison Kerry.

After a motorcycle accident led to his right leg being amputated at the age of 19, McFall won the 100 meters bronze medal at the 2008 Beijing Paralympic Games.

The 31-year-old doctor will help ESA engineers design changes in hardware needed to open professional spaceflight to a wider pool of qualified candidates, the agency said.

“I think the message that I want to give to future generations is that science is for everyone, and space travel can hopefully be for everyone,” McFall said.

Reporting by Tim Hepher and Yiming Woo, additional reporting by Kylie MacLellan in London; Editing by Nick Macfie, William Maclean

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