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Who can be an astronaut? Accessible spaceships may be the future

Who can be an astronaut? Accessible spaceships may be the future

Betsy Furler describes the idea of astronauts with disabilities as a dream come true.

“Imagine you are a child with a disability, and all of a sudden you see, ‘Oh, I could be an astronaut,’” Furler tells Inverse. “What a boost in your confidence and leveling of the playing field just with what your dreams can be.”

Furler is an accessibility consultant who advocates for the inclusion of people with disabilities. Her reaction is appropriate, given the response to an announcement made by the European Space Agency earlier this year.

In February, the ESA sent out an unprecedented call for its next generation of astronauts. The group would include people with physical disabilities that would have otherwise excluded them from the chance to explore the cosmos.

Less than six months later, the space agency has received about 250 applications.

The ESA’s call was done in parallel with the Parastronaut Fly Feasibility Project to identify what needs to be done to accommodate the astronauts for upcoming missions.

Since this has never been done before, there are currently a lot of unknowns.

Astronauts undergo underwater training for Extravehicular Activities, where they do handy-work outside of the International Space Station.ESA

Lucy Van Der Tas, ESA’s head of talent acquisition, tells Inverse the agency is pre-screening its applications and that “diversity is very much in our DNA.”

“We feel it's the right thing to do; we wish to be able to include and represent all facets of society,” Van Der Tas says.

From an innovation perspective, ESA also felt that this was a necessary move.

A key enabler for innovation

“Diversity is a key enabler for innovation, and the number of people who go up into space that we can collect biodata on is pretty limited,” Van Der Tas says.

From the hundreds of people who have gone to space in the past few years, the space agency conducts different tests to see the effect of space travel and microgravity on the human body. The results showed that people’s bodies react differently to the space environment.

ESA feels a need to include a diverse group of people to conduct these types of experiments.

“We feel very strongly about this. There’s a sort of an emotional reaction to it,” Van Der Tas says. “But there's also some very good key and hard scientific reasons for doing it.”

Space agencies like NASA and ESA typically send out a call for astronauts every few years.

The first astronauts were military personnel with experience flying jet aircraft and had to be shorter than 5 feet 11 inches to fit in the spacecraft.

Since then, the qualifications for astronauts have expanded to include a more diverse range of people. But space still faces a severe diversity problem with the majority of astronauts being white, male, and having a military background.

Of the 562 people who have flown to space, just 65 have been women.

Applicants generally have to have a degree in science, technology, mathematics, or engineering (STEM).

There are additional physical requirements such as near 20/20 vision, blood pressure lower than 140/90, and a height between 62 and 75 inches.

But people with physical disabilities were never allowed to make the cut.

ESA astronaut Thomas Pesquet during his spacewalk training at NASA’s Neutral Buoyancy Lab in Houston, USA.ESA

The last time ESA put out a call for astronaut applications was more than ten years ago, and it received 8,413 applicants. That pool produced a total of six astronauts for the class of 2009.

According to ESA, this year, the number of applicants more than doubled to 22,589 applicants, and 24 percent of the applicants are women. The space agency is looking for four to six astronauts and one astronaut with a physical disability and a reserve of about 20 astronauts.

“I’d like to see more, but this is already a big signal that [becoming an] astronaut is no longer the hardcore male domain,” Van Der Tas says.

“Spaceflight is quite dangerous”

Astronauts perform various physical activities such as walking, running, crouching, crawling, and swimming. Flight training also includes undergoing conditions in a microgravity environment.

Depending on the type of disability, space agencies would have to find alternative ways to make those physical activities more accessible for astronauts with disabilities.

As of now, the agency is still unsure what kind of technical adaptations would need to take place to allow for flight, but they’re hoping to learn more through the feasibility project. Part of the project is consulting with spaceflight providers to analyze what measurements need to be made.

The physical requirements for those getting onboard spacecraft have pretty much remained the same over the years, with a slight increase of the height limit to include taller people. As a result, spacecraft have been modified to accommodate that height difference.

For this particular project, ESA will include astronauts below 130 centimeters (4’2”) in height. Therefore, they may be adjusting the size of the spacecraft. Another adjustment would consist of the way astronauts anchor themselves while in microgravity.

Today, astronauts use their feet to anchor themselves, but the space agency is looking into other ways for people to keep steady during spaceflight.

“Spaceflight is quite dangerous, and we want to make it as safe as possible,” Van Der Tas says.

The project also does not guarantee flight for the applicants seeing as how there are still many unknowns, but it does aim for future inclusion of astronauts with disabilities in the space program.

“Well, fingers crossed that the person who is selected to support it actually gets to fly because this is really what it's all about,” Van Der Tas says. “At this point, although we've done some preparatory work, we don't actually know how long it's going to take to make these adjustments.”

But for Van Der Tas and others who are part of the space industry, it’s about seeing a more inclusive future of space travel.

“I’m a bit of a sci-fi nerd, so I would like spaceflight to become part of our daily lives,” Van Der Tas says. “I’d like to see it accessible to far more people.”

Furler would like to see more awareness of the value that people with disabilities can bring.

“We're all starting to embrace more differences, and we need to start embracing differences in the way we do things, whether that's the way we think or the way we move through the world,” Furler says.