Paralympian John McFall joins ESA as first astronaut with a disability

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The European Space Agency (ESA) has selected a person with a physical disability to be included in its next generation of astronauts for the first time, in what it hopes is the first step towards sending a “parastronaut” into space.

John McFall, a 41-year-old British Paralympic sprinter who now works as a doctor, is one of 17 candidates chosen from 22,500 applicants to take part in the space agency’s 2022 astronaut class. The successful candidates will now complete a year of basic training in space technology, science and medicine at the European Astronaut Center in Cologne, Germany, before entering the next space station training phase, where they will be taught how to operate station elements and transport vehicles.

McFall will attend ESA’s “Parastronaut Feasibility Project”, which the agency said in a statement was intended to “develop opportunities for the inclusion of astronauts with physical disabilities in human spaceflight and possible future missions.” While it cannot guarantee at this time that McFall will be sent into space, the agency has said it will “commit to trying as hard and as seriously as possible” to make it happen.

In addition to his medical training, McFall, who lost his right leg in a motorbike accident aged 19, is a former sprinter who represented Great Britain at the 2008 Beijing Paralympics — where he won bronze.

European space officials have used the term “paraastronauts” to refer to people who are psychologically, cognitively, technically and professionally qualified to be an astronaut, but have a physical disability that would normally prevent them from being selected due to the demands made using current space hardware.”

Through engineering studies, space simulations, analog missions and conversations with the agency’s international space partners, ESA hopes that McFall’s participation in the program will enable the agency to determine what is required to send a person with a physical disability into space.

“As an amputee, I never thought being an astronaut was a possibility,” McFall said in an interview posted on ESA’s website.

“I am extremely excited to use the skills I have to problem-solve, identify problems and overcome obstacles that enable people with a physical disability to do the job on an equal footing with their able-bodied counterparts,” he said.

McFall also said he wanted to find the answers to the practical questions posed by sending a person with a physical disability into space: “What actually happens to a person with a lower limb amputation in microgravity? What happens to their remaining limb?”

McFall will join five career astronauts and 11 reserve astronauts. This is the first time ESA has recruited a new class of space scientists to join its ranks since 2009.

In an earlier statement encouraging candidates with disabilities to apply for the programme, ESA said that “society’s expectations of diversity and inclusivity have changed,” and that “including people with special needs also means benefiting from their extraordinary experience, ability to adapt to difficult environments and viewpoints.”

“Science is for everyone, and space travel can hopefully be for everyone,” McFall said.

In an interview with the Associated PressNASA spokesman Dan Huot said the US space agency was following the selection process that took place across the Atlantic with “great interest,” but he noted that “NASA’s selection criteria currently remain the same.”

“For maximum crew safety, NASA’s current requirements require each crew member to be free of medical conditions that could either impair the person’s ability to participate in or be exacerbated by spaceflight, as determined by NASA physicians,” Huot told the AP.

The list of 17 candidates selected by ESA this year also includes two women, Sophie Adenot of France and Britain’s Rosemary Coogan – who will bolster another underrepresented group in space. Earlier this year, the agency announced that Italian astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti would become the first European female astronaut to serve as commander of the International Space Station, 15 years after NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson became the station’s first female boss in its history.

At their two-day council, ESA also announced that its 22 members had committed to increase the agency’s budget with 17 percent, which its tweeted director general amounted to 16.9 billion euros ($17.6 billion) over the next three years. The agency said it plans to focus the next phase of its space exploration on low Earth orbit, the moon and Mars.

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