What would it do be like having a spaceship with a really 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 was recruiting a new group of four full-time astronauts and 20 reserve astronauts for upcoming missions to the International Space Station, as well as for future international missions to the Moon. The agency promises that the new class of astronauts will be more diverse than ever and will seek qualified people with certain disabilities.
At a press conference two weeks ago, ESA officials told reporters the agency would open its next pool of applications to include applicants with lower limb impairments in one or both legs or feet, congenital or due to amputation; people who have differences in the length of their legs; or people who are less than 130 centimeters (4 feet 3 inches) tall. This new height standard is considerably shorter than Existing NASA requirement that astronauts should stand between 5 feet 2 inches and 6 feet 3 inches. All ESA astronaut candidates must also have at least a master’s degree in a scientific, technological or engineering field, or have training as a test pilot, and be under the age of 50.
ESA spokesperson Marco Trovatello said the application process, which opens March 31 and continues until May 28, this is just the start of the so-called “parastronaut“Program. The last time the agency had astronaut openings, it received more than 8,000 applications. Trovatello says agency officials consulted with NASA and the International Paralympic Committee before making the announcement. “We have informed all of our ISS partners of our intention,” Trovatello wrote in an email to WIRED. “But first we have to do the feasibility study.”
After selecting astronaut candidates from among its 22 European member states, ESA officials will spend the next few years figuring out how to run a parastronaut program with its U.S. and Russian partners, and what internal modifications to the spacecraft might be. required. The agency has its own Ariane 5 rocket, but not a spacecraft that can carry astronauts. ESA is overseeing the development of the European Service Module, the part of NASA’s Orion spacecraft that will provide air, electricity and propulsion for a future Orion flight to the moon and back. This means that any disabled astronaut should board a spacecraft operated by NASA, the Russian space agency, or a private company like SpaceX.
(While the ESA research marks the first time a government-run space program has recruited disabled astronauts, private industry already has at least one celebrity example: Cosmologist Stephen Hawking has lived within minutes of weightlessness during a zero-G plane 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 world of predominantly male explorers, and that the concept of the parastronaut will open the door to a population that has been largely overlooked when it comes to space exploration. “There should be no reason for space travel to be limited to people without disabilities,” says Cheri Blauwet, assistant professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation at Harvard Medical School and former Paralympic athlete. “Just as we seek diversity everywhere else, 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 one-sixth of gravity found on the Moon. On Earth, “the purpose of a prosthesis is to provide the function of gravity and to support body weight,” says Blauwet. But, she continues, “in a weightless environment, a lot of that would be alleviated, and you could use something much simpler in space.”