‘If we don’t start now, it’s never going to happen,’ says spokesperson for European Space Agency
Nicole Mortillaro · CBC News · Posted: May 06, 2021 4:00 AM ET | Last Updated: May 6
Since humans began to have a presence in space, only about 550 people have been in orbit around our planet. That’s because astronauts are considered the elite: well-educated, in peak physical health and skilled. There has been, however, a group who have been left out of the running, no matter how well-educated, fit or skilled they are: people with physical disabilities.
The European Space Agency (ESA) is aiming to change that.
In its most recent recruitment call for four to six astronauts, the agency announced its Parastronaut Feasibility Project aimed at including candidates with some physical disabilities.
Aside from fulfilling rigorous requirements, which include having a Master’s degree or higher in natural sciences, medicine, engineering, mathematics or computer science, the astronaut candidates can apply if:
- They have a lower limb deficiency (for example, due to amputation or congenital limb deficiency).
- They have a leg length difference.
- They are of short stature (<130 cm).
It’s something that ESA believes has been a long time coming.
“It’s in the principle of diversity and inclusiveness,” Lucy van der Tas, head of talent acquisition at ESA.
In particular, van der Tas said that only one of the six astronauts from the last recruitment call was a woman, something they’re trying to address by getting more women to apply (women only accounted for 15.5 per cent of applicants). They’re aiming to increase that number to 50 per cent, while making the entire process more inclusive.
“So we’re making a big push to attract more women to apply,” van der Tas said. “At the same time the discussion started, insofar as no one has ever put somebody with a disability in space. And why not? And if we don’t start now, it’s never going to happen.”
The vacancy closes on May 28 with the final selection announced in October 2022.
‘Oh, my God. Finally’
When Heather heard the news, she was ecstatic.
“My first reaction was, ‘Oh, my God, finally,’ she said. “Then, ‘Oh, but it’s not the Canadian Space Agency.'”
Heather, who asked not to have her last name published due to fears about discrimination when searching for work, is a mechanical engineer living in southwestern Ontario. She has long dreamed about becoming an astronaut and said it’s still her dream job. But, as she was born with cerebral palsy, that dream has been out of her reach.
“Right at the outset [the current process] rules someone like me out,” she said. “There are going to be limitations that some people physically can’t meet, but to rule everybody out with one brush … you’re just stopped right at the door.”
Her cerebral palsy affects her left side, and she has limited use of her hands, meaning she still doesn’t meet the criteria in ESA’s newest recruitment, but she still said it’s a relief to see people with disabilities represented.
“There isn’t the visibility. And so you see all the astronauts, you see those people [and think] ‘that’s not me,'” she said.
While Canada is an associate member state of ESA, it is not part of their astronaut program, so Canadians can’t apply.
In 2007, world renowned cosmologist Stephen Hawking, who had motor neurone disease which left him immobile, flew in zero gravity in a modified Boeing 727 jet (the plane flies in parabolic arcs that simulate weightlessness).
While ESA’s program may be a welcome start to many, it’s just that: a start.
The current plan — which has a 1-million Euro budget — is to reassess hardware, training and other mission elements to determine what modifications may be needed to ensure people with physical disabilities are able to operate safely in space.
“Safety is a big deal in space, and the safety of all participants,” van der Tas said. “Also, there’s a lot of work that needs to be done in space. So the person will also need to be able to contribute to the activities that have been done up there.”
While no other space agencies are exploring missions for astronauts with disabilities, an emailed statement from NASA said they are following ESA’s program with interest.
“NASA applauds ESA’s emphasis on diversity and inclusion for its para-astronaut selection process and program. NASA shares a common goal with our commercial and international partnerships to make space fully accessible,” the agency said.
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The Canadian Space Agency said they “explored opening recruitment campaigns to people with disabilities in the past, however, through preliminary consultations with partners at the time, we could not identify a disability that would not limit mission assignment.”
They also said that, “although there is currently no recruitment campaign planned in Canada, we look forward to the results of ESA’s project, which aims to offer professional spaceflight opportunities to a wider pool of people.”
Heather said she’s still holding out hope that Canada will make changes to their recruitment program.
“I really would like to see us step up and say this is obviously the direction we’re going,” she said. “It’s time we made some changes.”