The European Space Agency announces the world’s first disabled astronaut

"Science is for everyone and space travel hopefully can be for everyone."
Chris Young
An ESA astronaut during a spacewalk.
An ESA astronaut during a spacewalk.


The European Space Agency (ESA) named the first-ever "parastronaut" this week on Wednesday, Nov. 23, meaning the world may soon see the first disabled person go to space.

The agency, made up of 22 nations, chose former British Paralympic sprinter John McFall among 16 other new recruits for astronaut training.

The announcement doesn't guarantee McFall will go to space, though it is a genuine possibility. Firstly, he will take part in a feasibility study that will allow ESA to assess the conditions required for people with disabilities to go to space, a Reuters report explains.

The world's first "parastronaut"

McFall is now one of six new career astronauts and 11 reserve astronauts in training, as ESA announced new astronauts for the first time since 2009.

The 31-year-old parastronaut was in a motorcycle accident at the age of 19, leading to his right leg being amputated. He went on to win the 100-meters Bronze Medal at the Beijing Paralympic Games in 2008. McFall, who is now a doctor, will help ESA develop hardware to allow disabled people to work professionally in space, the space agency said in a statement.

"It's been quite a whirlwind experience, given that as an amputee, I'd never thought that being an astronaut was a possibility, so excitement was a huge emotion," McFall explained in an interview posted on ESA's website.

ESA posted openings last year, and they put a call out for people capable of passing their regular astronaut tests as well as one for people who are only prevented from becoming astronauts today because of the limitations of existing hardware as related to their disability.

John McFall's message to future generations

Overall, ESA received 257 applications for the role of "parastronaut", or astronaut with a disability. On its website, ESA explained that "in November 2022, John was selected to take part in the Parastronaut Feasibility Project to improve our understanding of, and overcome, the barriers space flight presents for astronauts with a physical disability."  

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In his interview, McFall said, "I think the message that I would give to future generations is that science is for everyone and space travel hopefully can be for everyone."

ESA will work with NASA on the new feasibility study. Both space agencies aim to establish the fact that parastronauts going to space wouldn't compromise crew safety, which is always the top priority in space. They will also look to design and develop any potential adaptions to existing spacecraft to allow parastronauts to join human spaceflight programs. If all goes to plan, the study will constitute a massive step in making spaceflight more accessible to all.

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