The European Space Agency wants to make sure its new astronaut class is more diverse. But it will take redesigned gear to make space accessible to everybody.
What would it be like to have a spaceship with a truly diverse crew—not the mix of alien species seen in so many sci-fi series, but human beings with all kinds of bodies? The European Space Agency announced in early February that it is recruiting a new pool of four full-time and 20 reserve astronauts for upcoming missions to the International Space Station, as well as future international missions to the moon. The agency promises the new astronaut class will be more gender-diverse than ever, and will seek qualified individuals with certain disabilities.
During a press conference two weeks ago, ESA officials told reporters the agency would open its upcoming application pool to include candidates who have a lower limb deficiency in one or both legs or feet, either congenitally or due to amputation; people who have differences in the lengths of their legs; or people who are less than 130 centimeters (4 feet, 3 inches) tall. This new height standard is considerably shorter than NASA’s existing requirement that astronauts must stand between 5 feet, 2 inches and 6 feet, 3 inches. All ESA astronaut candidates also need to have at least a master’s degree in a science, technology, or engineering field, or have training as a test pilot, and be younger than 50 years old.
ESA spokesperson Marco Trovatello says the application process, which opens March 31 and continues through May 28, is just the beginning for the so-called “parastronaut” program. The last time the agency had astronaut openings, they received more 8,000 applications. Trovatello says that agency officials consulted with both NASA and the International Paralympic Committee before making the announcement. “We have informed all our ISS partners regarding our intent,” Trovatello wrote in an email to WIRED. “But we have to run the feasibility study first.”
After selecting astronaut candidates from its 22 European member states, ESA officials will spend the next few years figuring out how to make a parastronaut program work with its US and Russian partners, and what internal spacecraft modifications might be needed. The agency has its own Ariane 5 rocket, but not a spacecraft that can carry astronauts. The ESA is overseeing the development of the European Service Module, the part of NASA’s Orion spacecraft that will provide air, electricity, and propulsion during a future Orion flight to the moon and back. That means any disabled astronaut would have to ride inside a spacecraft operated by NASA, Russia’s space agency, or a private firm like SpaceX.
(While the ESA’s search marks the first time a government-run space program has recruited astronauts with disabilities, private industry already has at least one celebrity example: Cosmologist Stephen Hawking experienced a few minutes of weightlessness during a zero-G airplane flight in 2007 and was preparing to fly on Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo spacecraft before his death in 2018.)
Aerospace engineering experts and former astronauts say the push for diversity is welcome in a universe of explorers who have been mainly male, and that the concept of a parastronaut will open the door to a population that has mostly been ignored when it comes to space exploration. “There shouldn’t be any reason why space travel should be limited to people without disabilities,” says Cheri Blauwet, an assistant professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation at Harvard Medical School and a former Paralympic athlete. “Just as we seek diversity in every other place, why shouldn’t we see diversity in space?”
In fact, some differences among astronauts that would be apparent on Earth would disappear in the zero-G environment of space or the one-sixth gravity found on the moon. On Earth, “the purpose of a prosthesis is to provide the function of gravity and support body weight,” Blauwet says. But, she continues, “in a zero-gravity environment, much of that would be mitigated, and you could use something much simpler in space.”
Once a spacecraft reached zero-G, someone with a prosthetic device might have an advantage over his or her colleagues, says Garrett Reisman, a former NASA astronaut who flew two times in space, including a 95-day stay aboard the International Space Station. “The only time your legs are useful is to anchor yourself. Once you get to where you are going, it's helpful to put your feet in a foot restraint and use it as something to react against,” Reisman says. “If you have a prosthetic or single leg, you could do that just fine. In fact, it could be an advantage to make a stronger connection point between the prosthetic and a foothold.”
Still, spacecraft, spacesuits, and possibly cockpit seats will need to be modified to fit prosthetic devices or persons of short stature. There will also have to be new protocols and training methods to evacuate the crew during an emergency, such as a problem on the launch pad before take-off or during a splashdown at sea. “The biggest concern about someone with some of these disabilities is not anything in space, but emergencies on the pad or after landing,” says Reisman, who is now a professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Southern California and a senior advisor to SpaceX. “There are scenarios where you have to quickly unstrap from the capsule and slide down a basket off the launch pad and run into a waiting armored personnel carrier and drive away from danger. It’s those emergency ingress and egress drills that might be challenging.”
(There’s never been an actual crew evacuation from the launch pad at Cape Canaveral, although it’s part of training for both NASA and SpaceX astronauts.)
As for spacesuits, NASA’s new AI-assisted suit would have to be slightly modified to fit someone with a prosthetic device, or completely redesigned for an individual significantly shorter than NASA’s current height standard. Reisman says NASA’s current modular suit only comes in medium, large and extra-large sizes. The smaller sized suit, designed to accommodate people around 5 feet tall, was scrapped, according to Reisman, because it required additional design and engineering to figure out how to attach the arm and leg units, as well as devices to provide oxygen, remove carbon dioxide, and maintain pressure. The obstacle wasn’t really the astronaut’s height, he says, but rather the distance between the person’s armpits—which determines how much extra gear could be carried on the back of the suit.
However, since not all astronauts get to go outside for a spacewalk, not everyone needs a spacesuit with all the bells and whistles. Many crew members perform science experiments or operate devices from inside the station. Perhaps the biggest potential modification would be the crew capsule seats, Reisman says. NASA’s current commercial crew specifications (check out Appendix D in this 295-page NASA spacecraft rule book) require someone to be at least 5 feet tall in order to fit in the seats. A smaller astronaut would need a smaller seat. “It doesn’t mean it couldn't be done,” Reisman says. “It just means [the crew capsule] would have to be redesigned and recertified, which is not a trivial exercise.”
Space travel has its health risks, and some of them might be especially pertinent to people with certain disabilities. Blauwet says that one consideration is the loss of bone density, which occurs during long missions thanks to long-term weightlessness. Loss of bone density might affect a person with an amputation by changing their balance, Blauwet says. Astronauts on the space station fight bone loss with hours of daily exercise on treadmills and by using resistance bands, something that a physically fit parastronaut candidate would likely be able to handle easily, she says, with the right prosthetic.
Another concern is for the rashes, skin irritations, or infections that can occur at the point where a prosthetic device meets the residual limb, and whether these could heal properly during a long mission. Still, Blauwet believes these health issues are relatively minor compared to the other risks of space travel that confront all astronauts, such as the cancer and cardiovascular risks of exposure to cosmic radiation, loss of vision due to a build-up of fluid pressing against the back of the eye, and the psychological effects of isolation.
For their part, NASA officials say they are open to the idea of a parastronaut, but aren’t committing to changing their crew requirements yet. “We at NASA are watching ESA's para-astronaut selection process with great interest,” NASA spokeswoman Kathryn Hambleton wrote in a statement to WIRED. “NASA is not currently considering changing our selection criteria, however space is quickly becoming more accessible than ever before thanks to NASA’s dedication to commercial and international partnerships. We look forward to working with ESA, and all our partners’, new astronauts in the future.”
Italian astronaut Samantha Cristoferetti says the engineering challenges of adapting a spacecraft for a disabled person are worth the effort and money. In fact, she says, the weightlessness of space makes everybody equal. “We did not evolve to go to space; what enables us to go to space is technology,” says Cristoforetti, who spent almost seven months on the International Space Station in 2012. “It’s a matter of: Do we want to invest in the adaptations of space hardware that makes it possible for people who are highly qualified individuals but have some kind of physical disability? We need to adapt that technology.”