18 Aug 2021

Over 30 Brits bid to become first physically disabled astronaut

Sports reporter

More than 250 people have applied to a project which hopes to send a physically disabled person into space for the first time.

Since it was launched earlier this year, 257 people have applied for the European Space Agency’s (Esa) “parastronaut feasibility project”, including 20 men and 11 women from the UK, Channel 4 News has learned.

Esa’s list of eligible disabilities, which were identified by working with the International Paralympic Committee (IPC), include leg amputees, people with one leg shorter than the other and those who are under 130cm tall.

David Parker, director of Human and Robotics Exploration at Esa, said: “This [project] is a voyage of exploration for us and for the individual.

“I’m sure this is where we’re going to learn a lot from people who know more about disabilities than we do.”

‘Fantastic opportunity’

Dr Irene Di Giulio, a lecturer in Human Anatomy and Biometrics at King’s College London, told this programme she believes the list of disabilities will be extended.

“Our hypothesis is that there are some disabilities that could be beneficial for spaceflight,” she added.

“For example, people with double leg amputation could be better suited for spaceflight.”

Many astronauts experience a “fluid shift from the brain to the legs or vice versa” during take-off and landing, and a double leg amputee may have a less adverse reaction, she said.

Esa drew up its list of eligible disabilities by using an IPC table which categorises the different kinds and degrees of impairments.

Esa project developers then assessed each category against their own knowledge of what is required to complete a “safe and useful space mission”.

People under 130cm tall were included as an eligible disability because being taller could be a disadvantage in flight modules and the International Space Station, where room is limited.

Air Vice-Marshal Harv Smyth, UK Space director at the Ministry of Defence, said: “The human race isn’t just a certain type. You’ve got to be able to take and exploit and explore the whole gamut of everyone who’s a human and that includes those that on earth we may consider not to be able-bodied.

“It’s just opened up a whole new demographic which, probably, inappropriately in the past, we’ve not necessarily been getting after. I just think the opportunity is fantastic.”

The successful candidates are due to be announced in October 2022 after going through a lengthy selection process, including psychological testing, interviews and medical assessments.

Esa has committed €1 million (£850,000) to the project with the option to increase its budget. It’s total budget this year is €6.5 billion (£5.5 million) and 67 per cent of that comes from its 22 member states.

The UK’s membership of Esa is not linked to the EU and so British citizens’ access to the schemes are not impacted by Brexit.

Since 2019, the UK has contributed about £374 million a year to Esa.

Alongside the “parastronaut” scheme, Esa have also invited people to apply for their general astronaut programme.

Major Tim Peake, the last British astronaut to successfully complete a mission to space, was selected in the previous Esa recruitment round in 2009.

Roughly 22,000 people have applied this year for the scheme.

Esa says it is recruiting four to six career astronauts and a pool of approximately 20 reserve astronauts.

‘Disability equality’

Channel 4 News’ sports reporter Jordan Jarrett-Bryan, who is an amputee, underwent a training programme which mimicked some of the aspects of Esa’s “parastronaut” scheme.

At the Ministry of Defence’s High G Unit in Lincolnshire he experienced the same G-force an astronaut in a rocket would feel taking off from the earth’s surface, travelling into the edge of space and returning to land.

“It was an exhilarating experience that has left me feeling queasy and disorientated, ” he said.

“More importantly, one that hasn’t proved problematic because of my disability.”

He added: “High G is just one part of astronaut training, but overall it’s good signs for the success of the parastronaut project.

“It might not quite be one step for mankind, but for an amputee, it’s one step in the direction of disability equality.”

Producer: Ed Gove

Written by Calum Fraser.