Space diversity: Europe’s space agency gets 1st parastronaut

Nov 23, 2022, 3:08 AM | Updated: 2:19 pm
ESA's new parastronaut John McFall, a British former Paralympic sprinter who will take part in a po...

ESA's new parastronaut John McFall, a British former Paralympic sprinter who will take part in a potentially groundbreaking feasibility study to explore whether physical disability will impair space travel, poses with ESA's new astronauts Meganne Christian, left, and Rosemary Coogan, right, during the ESA Council at Ministerial level (CM22) at the Grand Palais Ephemere, in Paris, Wednesday, Nov. 23, 2022. The European Space Agency has selected a disabled former athlete to be among its its newest astronaut recruits as part of its first recruitment drive in over a decade that aimed to bring diversity to space travel. (AP Photo/Francois Mori)

(AP Photo/Francois Mori)

PARIS (AP) — The European Space Agency made history Wednesday by selecting an amputee who lost his leg in a motorcycle accident to be among its newest batch of astronauts — a leap toward its pioneering ambition to send someone with a physical disability into space.

John McFall, a 41-year-old Briton who lost his right leg when he was 19 and went on to compete in the Paralympics, called his selection at Europe’s answer to NASA “a real turning point and mark in history.”

“ESA has a commitment to send an astronaut with a physical disability into space … This is the first time that a space agency has endeavored to embark on a project like this. And it sends a really, really strong message to humanity,” he said.

The newly-minted parastronaut joins five career astronauts in the final selection unveiled during a Paris news conference — the conclusion of the agency’s first recruitment drive in over a decade aimed at bringing diversity to space travel.

The list also included two women: France’s Sophie Adenot and the UK’s Rosemary Coogan, new ambassadors for another greatly underrepresented section for European astronauts. A small minority of those who have explored space have been women, and most of those were Americans.

Wednesday’s list did not, however, include any persons of color. The hiring campaign didn’t specifically address ethnic diversity, but at the time stressed the importance of “representing all parts of our society.”

McFall will follow a different path than his fellow astronauts because he will participate in a groundbreaking feasibility study exploring whether physical disability will impair space travel. It’s uncharted land, since no major Western space agency has ever put a parastronaut into space, according to the ESA.

Speaking with pride amid flashes of emotion, McFall said that he was uniquely suited to the mission because of the vigor of his mind and body.

“I’m very comfortable in my own skin. I lost my leg about twenty plus years ago, I’ve 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 put my mind to,” he added.

“I never dreamt of being an astronaut. It was only when ESA announced that they were looking for a candidate with a physical disability to embark on this project that it really sparked my interest.”

The feasibility study, that will last two to three years, will examine the basic hurdles for a parastronaut including how a physical disability might impact mission training, and if modifications to spacesuits and aircraft are required, for example.

ESA’s Director of Human and Robotic Exploration David Parker said it was still a “long road” for McFall but described the fresh recruitment as a long-held ambition.

Parker said it started with a question. “Maybe there are people out there that are almost superhuman in that they’ve already overcome challenges. And could they become astronauts?”

Parker also says that he “thinks” it may be the first time the word “parastronaut” has been used, but “I do not claim ownership.”

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

It will be at least five years before McFall goes into space as an astronaut — if he is successful.

Across the Atlantic, Houston is taking note. Dan Huot, a spokesman for NASA’s Johnson Space Center, home to the American agency’s astronaut corps, told the AP that “we at NASA are watching ESA’s para-astronaut selection process with great interest.”

Huot acknowledged that “NASA’s selection criteria currently remains the same” but said the agency is looking forward to working with the “new astronauts in the future” from partners such as the ESA.

NASA stressed that it has a safety-conscious process for vetting future astronauts who might be put in life-threatening situations.

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

NASA said future “assistive technology” might change the game for “some candidates” to meet their stringent safety requirements.

The European agency received applications from all member nations and associate members, though most came from traditional heavyweights France, Germany, Britain and Italy.

The two-day ESA council running Tuesday to Wednesday in Paris also saw France, Germany and Italy announcing an agreement Tuesday for a new-generation European space launcher project as part of apparent efforts to better compete with Elon Musk’s SpaceX and other rocket programs in the U.S. and China.

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

___

Associated Press writer Marcia Dunn contributed to this story from Cape Canaveral, Florida

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

AP

Associated Press

Train service in Nigeria capital resumes after deadly attack

ABUJA, Nigeria (AP) — Rail service in Nigeria’s capital city resumed on Monday, eight months after assailants attacked a train with explosives and gunfire, killing seven people and abducting dozens of passengers. Only a handful of passengers and armed security personnel were aboard the first trip from Abuja to neighboring Kaduna state. “We are not […]
10 hours ago
Associated Press

‘Torso Killer’ admits killing 5 women decades ago near NYC

MINEOLA, N.Y. (AP) — A serial killer known as the “Torso Killer” admitted Monday to killing a 23-year-old woman outside a Long Island shopping mall in 1968 and four other women decades ago. Richard Cottingham was arraigned earlier this year on a second-degree murder charge in connection with Diane Cusick’s death during a trip she […]
10 hours ago
This cover image released by Dutton shows "Three-edged Sword" by Jeff Lindsay. (Dutton via AP)...
Associated Press

Review: Thief forced to steal a vital U.S. defense secret

“Three-Edged Sword,” by Jeff Lindsay (Dutton) After the Cold War, former Soviet spy Ivo Balodis built himself a fortress in an abandoned missile site on an island in the Baltic Sea. There, he has continued to deal in secrets — but for profit instead of for country. Balodis is now in possession of America’s most […]
10 hours ago
FILE - Insurrections loyal to President Donald Trump riot outside the Capitol in Washington, on Jan...
Associated Press

Ex-town official gets 15 days for role in Jan. 6 riot

BOSTON (AP) — A Massachusetts ex-town official seen on surveillance video marching through the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, was sentenced to 15 days in prison for her role in the riot carried out by supporters of former Republican President Donald Trump to stop the transfer of presidential power to Democrat Joe Biden. Suzanne […]
10 hours ago
Associated Press

Lockheed teams with Israel’s Rafael on laser defense

JERUSALEM (AP) — U.S. weapons maker Lockheed Martin Corp. and Israeli defense contractor Rafael on Monday said they will team up to develop a high-energy laser system to defend against aerial attacks. The system will be based on ” Iron Beam,” a laser missile-defense system that Rafael has been developing with Israel’s Defense Ministry. The […]
10 hours ago
FILE - Former New York Lieutenant Governor Brian Benjamin leaves a hearing in federal court on Apri...
Associated Press

Bribery, fraud charges dismissed against ex-NY Lt. Governor

NEW YORK (AP) — Bribery and fraud charges against former New York Lt. Gov. Brian Benjamin were tossed out Monday by a federal judge, leaving Benjamin to face only records falsification charges and prompting his lawyers to say it was tragic that the case was ever brought. Judge J. Paul Oetken in a written opinion […]
10 hours ago

Sponsored Articles

...
Day & Night Air Conditioning, Heating and Plumbing

Prep the plumbing in your home just in time for the holidays

With the holidays approaching, it's important to know when your home is in need of heating and plumbing updates before more guests start to come around.
(Photo via MLB's Arizona Fall League / Twitter)...
Arizona Fall League

Top prospects to watch at this year’s Arizona Fall League

One of the most exciting elements of the MLB offseason is the Arizona Fall League, which began its 30th season Monday.
...
Children’s Cancer Network

Children’s Cancer Network celebrates cancer-fighting superheroes, raises funds during September’s Childhood Cancer Awareness Month

Jace Hyduchak was like most other kids in his kindergarten class: He loved to play basketball, dress up like his favorite superheroes and jump as high as his pint-sized body would take him on his backyard trampoline.
Space diversity: Europe’s space agency gets 1st parastronaut