ESA welcomes parastronauts: In space we′re all disabled | Science| In-depth reporting on science and technology | DW | 18.02.2021
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Science

ESA welcomes parastronauts: In space we're all disabled

As part of a selection process for new astronauts, the European Space Agency is recruiting individuals with disabilities to be a parastronaut, with the hopes of eventually heading to space.

The European Space Agency (ESA) announced this week that it will be looking for a physically disabled candidate as one of its new astronauts selected during the 2021-2022 recruitment cycle.

"We all witness people with various disabilities or let's say differently-abled people taking their place in society: in politics, on our TV screens. We've all marveled at the Paralympians," said David Parker, Director of Human and Robotic Exploration at ESA. "We already have people working at ESA who have disabilities, and we need more of them to join us."

Who should apply?

In addition to the other requirements for astronaut candidates, Parker further specified what ESA is seeking in parastronaut candidates: "We are looking for an individual who is psychologically, cognitively, technically and professionally qualified to be an astronaut, but has certain classes of physical limitation that would normally prevent them from being selected through the requirements we normally have." 

According to ESA's website, those classes of physical limitation include physical disabilities affecting a person's legs or feet or individuals affected by dwarfism. 

Ability is relative

British astronaut Timothy Peake pointed out that when dealing with weightlessness, there are many things a person can do without the use of their lower limbs. 

"Actually, it's about ability. It's not about disability," said Peake. 

Italian astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti echoed Peake's sentiments.

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"We did not evolve to go to space. So, when it comes to space travel, we are all disabled," she said. "In the end, it's just a matter of do we want to invest in the technology, in the necessary adaptations of space hardware that make it possible?"

Lots to learn

Parker explained that the space agency has been looking at the barriers for people with physical disabilities in space as part of their Parastronaut Feasibility Project. They plan to investigate the technical and operational feasibility of making space flight for a parastronaut possible.

"Now, this possibility raises many, many questions, most of which we do not have answers for yet," said Parker. "Nevertheless, we think that if we don't ask the questions, we will not find the answers. And this is the very essence of exploration."

ESA says that it can't guarantee space flight for the selected parastronaut, but that the agency commits "to trying as hard and seriously as we can". They made the point that a top priority for any mission is that it's safe for the astronauts.

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In developing the program, ESA looked to the Paralympic Games for inspiration.

"We can only congratulate the ESA on these steps to increase the diversity of astronauts heading to space," Craig Spence from the International Paralympic Committee  told DW. "Everything is impossible until it is achieved for the first time, and I think it will send out a very strong message of inclusion to have a person with a disability in space for the first time."

New frontiers

The announcement was met with enthusiasm on social media and praise from disability rights advocates.

Kate Nash, CEO and founder of the organization Purple Space,  called it a tipping point.

"We've always known we're on a journey of developing inclusive workplace practices when it comes to building an inclusive world for employees with a disability," Nash told DW. "But there's something just electric about travel into space."

She hopes this move by ESA will demonstrate to other employers that any job can be done by a person with a disability.

"It's about recognizing the diversity of the disability experience," said Nash.

ESA's application period for parastronauts and other astronaut positions opens March 31. 

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