Who will be the first “Parastronaut” in history?

The first astronaut – or astronauts – with a physical disability could be announced as early as Wednesday, according to the European Space Agency.

People with physical disabilities have traditionally been excluded from one of the most exclusive and demanding jobs on earth – and beyond – due to strict selection requirements.

Guillaume Weerts, head of ESA’s Space Medicine Division, told AFP the agency’s “parastronaut project” required “a complete change in philosophy” of the concept of medical fitness, which originally came from the military and fighter pilot selection.

After conducting a feasibility study, ESA said potential candidates could be people with defects in their lower limbs, whether from amputation or congenital defects.

Smaller people up to 1.3 meters tall or people with different leg lengths were also eligible to apply.

The educational and psychological requirements for the candidates remained the same as for any other astronaut. Application deadline in June 2021.

ESA is expected to appoint between four and six new European astronauts – without disabilities – during its Ministerial Council in Paris on Wednesday.

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While Weerts said the Parastronauts project is somewhat separate, “there is a real possibility that one or more people with disabilities will also be featured as part of the announcement.”

– “Disability is not a limitation” –

In the high-precision world of space travel, even small changes can become extremely complicated – and expensive.

For example, the existing systems are designed for people of a certain height, Weerts said.

“What does that mean for someone who is a smaller size? How can we make sure that person can just reach the keys?”

ESA plans to work with those selected to find the best way to address such potential challenges.

As a member of the selection panel, Weerts was unable to reveal details about specific candidates.

But he said “a really great group of people” applied and worked their way through the selection process.

“We met absolutely wonderful people,” he said.

The trial is excellent “proof that disability is not a limitation,” he added.

“It’s really something we all believe in,” he said, adding that ESA’s partners showed a high level of commitment to the project.

So when were the first astronauts with a disability able to take off?

“Space is not a business for people in a hurry,” Weerts said.

The timeline is difficult to predict because “it really depends on what we find,” he said, adding that there would be a lot more work to be done once ESA had selected its candidates.

But he said an astronaut with a disability could go into space “possibly in the next 10 years.”

– “incredibly exciting” –

Kamran Mallick, the chief executive of the charity Disability Rights UK, said the project was “incredibly exciting”.

“People with disabilities are excluded (from) big aspects of everything we do in the world,” he told AFP.

“If we really want to explore the universe, we have to accept that we can’t just have it for a certain group of individuals.”

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Mallick praised ESA’s plan to work with the astronauts to find out exactly what they need.

“I’m a wheelchair user and it’s much better when people ask me what works for me, what I would need, rather than making assumptions about what someone can or can’t do,” he said.

Mallick said that when he was a teenager watching the launch of a space shuttle, he dreamed of becoming an astronaut.

“Of course, I was quickly told that wasn’t going to happen. Don’t aspire to be an astronaut,” he said.

“I wish I had followed it up now.”

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