McFall will participate in ESA’s “Parastronaut Feasibility Project,” which the agency said in a statement was intended to “develop options for the inclusion of astronauts with physical disabilities in human spaceflight and possible future missions.” While it cannot guarantee at this stage that McFall will be sent into space, the agency has said it will “commit to trying as hard and as seriously as we can” to make it happen.
In addition to medical training, McFall, who lost his right leg in a motorbike accident aged 19, is a former sprinter who represented Great Britain at the 2008 Beijing Paralympics – where he won bronze.
European space officials have used the term “paraastronauts” to refer to people who are “psychologically, cognitively, technically and professionally qualified to be an astronaut, but have a physical disability that would normally prevent them from being selected due to the demands made using current space hardware.”
Through technical studies, space simulations, analog missions and conversations with the agency’s international space partners, ESA hopes McFall’s participation in the program will allow the agency to determine what is required to send a person with a physical disability into space.
“As an amputee, I never thought being an astronaut was a possibility,” McFall said in an interview posted on ESA’s website.
“I am extremely excited to use the skills I have to solve problems, identify problems and overcome obstacles that allow people with a physical disability to perform their jobs on an equal footing with their able-bodied colleagues,” he said.
McFall also said he wanted to find the answers to the practical questions posed by sending a person with a physical disability into space: “What actually happens to a lower limb amputee in microgravity? What happens to their remaining limb?”
McFall will join five career astronauts and 11 reserve astronauts. It is the first time ESA has recruited a new class of astronauts to join its ranks since 2009.
In an earlier statement encouraging candidates with disabilities to apply for the program, ESA said that “society’s expectations of diversity and inclusion have changed,” and that “inclusion of people with special needs also means taking advantage of their extraordinary experience, ability to adapt to difficult environments and viewpoints.”
“Science is for everyone, and space travel can hopefully be for everyone,” McFall said.
In an interview with The Associated Press, NASA spokesman Dan Huot said the US space agency was following the selection process that took place across the Atlantic with “great interest,” but he noted that “NASA’s selection criteria remain the same.”
“For maximum crew safety, NASA’s current requirements require each crew member to be free of medical conditions that could either impair the person’s ability to participate in, or be exacerbated by, spaceflight, as determined by NASA physicians,” Huot told the AP.
The list of 17 candidates chosen by ESA this year also includes two women, Sophie Adenot of France and Britain’s Rosemary Coogan – who will strengthen another underrepresented group in space. Earlier this year, the agency announced that Italian astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti would become the first European female astronaut to serve as commander of the International Space Station, 15 years after NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson became the station’s first female commander in its history.
At their two-day council, ESA also announced that its 22 members had committed to increasing the agency’s budget by 17 percent, which tweeted director general was equivalent to 16.9 billion euros ($17.6 billion) over the next three years. The agency said it plans to focus the next stage of space exploration on low Earth orbit, the moon and Mars.