Space Stations

ESA’s Parastronaut Feasibility Project

By Keith Cowing
Press Release
February 17, 2021
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ESA’s Parastronaut Feasibility Project
ESA's Parastronaut Feasibility Project

In a first for ESA and human spaceflight worldwide, ESA is looking for individual(s) 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 requirements imposed by the use of current space hardware.
ESA is ready to invest in defining the necessary adaptations of space hardware in an effort to enable these otherwise excellently qualified professionals to serve as crew members on a safe and useful space mission.

There are many unknowns ahead of us, the only promise we can make today is one of a serious, dedicated and honest attempt to clear the path to space for an astronaut with disability.

In parallel to the selection of astronauts with disabilities we are launching a study to work internally, with our international partners and with crew vehicle providers to identify potential adaptations to eventually enable an astronaut with disability to fly to space.

This project will open an opportunity of flight for one or more individuals. Along the way, it will bring innovations and other benefits to the safety and efficiency of future crews.

Because we believe that exploration is the matter of a collective effort, we need to extend the pool of talents we can rely on in order to continue progressing in our endeavour. One effective way of doing this is to include more gifted people of different genders, ages and backgrounds, but also people with special needs, people living with physical disabilities.

Right now we are at step zero. The door is closed to persons with disabilities. With this pilot project we have the ambition to open this door and make a leap, to go from zero to one.

Two aspects are critical to us: the mission should be as safe, and as useful, as any other mission of any other professional astronaut.

Because physical disabilities have up until now been avoided in space, we had to start from somewhere. To do this, we looked to the expertise of the International Paralympics Committee and used the table they have developed to categorise the different kinds and degrees of impairments – especially the list of eligible impairments.

We have then done a very simple thing: we have assessed each category against our own expertise and knowledge of the prerequisites to the tasks of a safe and useful space mission. We have then given three types of marks:

1) Red: when the kind and degree of disability was not or not safely compatible with the task.
2) Green: when the kind and degree of disability can be compatible with the task.
3) Yellow: when the kind and degree of disability could become fully compatible with the task with some adjustments, modifications or innovations.

As part of the parastronaut feasibility project, our staff are further assessing what is needed to ensure a nominal level of individual and collective safety for such a mission. With this project we will do everything to foster these changes in cooperation with spaceflight providers and international partners.

What needs to happen for an astronaut with a physical disability to fly?

Concretely, we have started a project with the task to shed light on the many unknowns and clarify the prerequisites for a safe and useful space mission of an astronaut with disabilities. We have several tools for this: technical studies, space simulations, analogue missions, and discussions with international partners and spaceflight providers.

When these prerequisites are clarified, and when adaptations, and maybe innovations have been implemented, we hope to pave the way to allow these astronaut(s) to fly.

We know there are many unknowns in this endeavour. At this time, we also do not know if we can identify answers to all of the questions. However, it takes courage to start, to make the first step, and that is what we are doing today.

What kind and degree of disability is being considered through the parastronaut feasibility project?
The pilot aspect of this project means that we start by opening a vacancy notice for people with all qualifications for the astronaut job and the following disabilities:

Persons who have a lower limb deficiency (e.g. due to amputation or congenital limb deficiency) as follows:

– single or double foot deficiency through ankle (lisfranc amputation)
– single or double leg deficiency below the knee
– Persons who have a leg length difference (missing or shortened limbs at birth or as a result of trauma)
– Persons of short stature (<130 cm) Is ESA considering mental disability? For the parastronaut feasibility project ESA is looking for individual(s) who are psychologically, cognitively, technically and professionally qualified to be an astronaut. Why is ESA intending to select and fly an astronaut with physical disabilities? Inclusiveness: if there is one thing we have learned by working on the International Space Station (ISS), it is that there is great value in diversity. Including people with special needs also means benefiting from their extraordinary experience, ability to adapt to difficult environments, and point of view. Responsibility: we have the strong conviction that there is a way to enable this level of inclusiveness in the astronaut corps, and in space, and that calls to our responsibility to at the very least, try it. Leading by example: it is our hope to push the envelope on the topic of disability at work, and inspire people with special needs to apply to other jobs at ESA and in the space sector. Learning from our differences: our astronauts perform a large number of life science experiments in space, and having people with disabilities carry out such experiments could bring some new, astonishing results in the field of life sciences for the benefit of even more people back on Earth. Why now? In the decade since the last selection of ESA Astronauts in 2008-09, the expectations of society towards diversity and inclusivity have changed. The high cost of the human spaceflight programme (which is funded by European taxpayers) means that ESA cannot and does not want to ignore these changes. Fair representation of all parts of society is a high focus of action for governments, institutions and business alike. This is visible in the space sector and strongly expressed by national delegations to ESA. ESA needs and wants to embrace change in order to remain relevant and accessible, especially to younger generations. Is a flight guaranteed? ESA is not in the position today to guarantee a flight for the selected individual(s). Very much like any exploration journey, the answer is not written at the back of any book but we can commit to trying as hard and seriously as we can. ESA has already initiated a special project aimed at speaking with spaceflight providers and international partners to analyse the measures that must be taken to clear the path and include the person(s) to be selected to fly, not as simple tourists, but as fully-fledged crew members of a space mission. Clearing the path in collaboration with international institutional and commercial partners will also likely foster a great deal of innovation in the field of procedures and technology for human spaceflight training, launch, on-board activities and landing. Lastly, it stands to reason that having qualified individuals who we would like to fly will place a much higher relevance to our attempts to clear the eventual way for a person with disabilities to do so. How will ESA ensure safety during training, launch, on-board and landing? ESA will work with the providers and international partners to ensure that all safety requirements are met, either by adapting hardware or developing specific operational procedures. What technical adaptations will be required? This is a valid question that the parastronaut feasibility project will aim to answer. Why are the other partners not inviting people with disability to become an astronaut? Again here, as ever when doing something for the first time, there is no guarantee of success. We are prepared for a difficult project, with many unknowns but we are truly convinced of the value for ESA and society as a whole. The Agency is therefore committed to do its utmost to convince its partners and stakeholders. What is the cost of the parastronaut selection and the mission of the selected person(s)? It is clear that for this very innovative project not all expertise is available within ESA. ESA will have to work with experts in the field. At this point, it is difficult to estimate the amount of resources required. However, in view of the need to adequately engage with multiple stakeholders and the project duration, ESA will commit an initial budget of 1M€.

SpaceRef co-founder, Explorers Club Fellow, ex-NASA, Away Teams, Journalist, Space & Astrobiology, Lapsed climber.