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ESA names the first Parastronaut: John McFall

The European Space Agency (ESA) announced its intake of 17 astronauts for 2022 on Wednesday – including five career astronauts, 11 astronaut reserves and one selected from its November 2021 Parastronaut Feasibility Study.

“Today we welcome the 17 members of the new ESA astronaut class 2022. This ESA astronaut class is bringing ambition, talent and diversity in many different forms – to drive our endeavors, and our future,” declared ESA director Josef Aschbacher.

Eight of the seventeen are female. ESA member states Germany, France, Italy and Spain have two citizens each on the roster, while Belgium, Austria, Switzerland, the Czech Republic, Poland and Sweden all have one. The UK has three.

The sole Parastronaut candidate is John McFall – a former Paralympic sprinter with a bronze medial to his name, plus credentials as an orthopedic surgeon. McFall lost his right leg in a motorcycle accident when he was 19.

After the accident, he carried on with his education in sports and exercise science, competed in the Paralympics before eventually beginning his medical training at the age of 28.

“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,” explained the ESA.

“I’ve got quite an interesting focus or point of view for human space exploration being [in] the first cohort of astronauts with a physical disability,” said [VIDEO] McFall.

He said the team not only had to undergo astronaut training, but it had to do so while working out “what it is about having a physical disability that makes it trickier and overcome those hurdles.”

“I’m interested in actually the science of space exploration. What actually happens to someone with a lower limb amputation in microgravity? What happens to their residual limb? And the science around that sort of thing: how does exercising in space differ?” added McFall.

The 17 were selected from a pool of 23,000 candidates with an interest in becoming an astronaut. That number was reduced in January to 1391 – 29 of which were considered potential Parastronauts.

ESA hopes including people with disabilities in its astronaut program will set an industry standard. Having successful candidates who don’t meet the height requirement of 130cm or are physically disabled is something that would have been unthinkable a few years ago – and still remains elusive [PDF] at NASA.

Becoming an astronaut has already lost some of its exclusivity as private space tourism ventures have matured. Last December the FAA ended its Commercial Space Astronaut Wings program because the list of those who qualified was growing too quickly. With that in mind, the decision to study the accessibility of space travel comes not a moment too soon.

“The message that I would give to future generations is that science is for everyone – and space travel, hopefully, can be for everyone,” said McFall in his ESA video.

The new astronauts will take up duty at the European Astronaut Centre in Cologne, Germany, where they will face 12 months of basic training and afterwards will be ready for Space Station training. Further training follows if they are assigned to a mission.

This time around, the ESA has also established a reserve pool of astronauts. Those folks will receive a consultancy contract and basic support as well as basic training in case a later flight opportunity is identified. ®


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