Science Now + Beyond

Outer space just got a lot more inclusive for astronauts

I used to hear the phrases ‘going to space’ or ‘becoming an astronaut’ and think of them as science fiction. It just seemed like such a faraway concept–literally and figuratively. But the way agencies are recruiting astronauts is changing. Today, going to space has never been more achievable. For the first time in 13 years, the European Space Agency issued an open call for astronauts. I didn’t even know space agencies issued open calls like these! The ESA has only done this three other times since 1978. What sets this call apart, however, is their inclusivity initiative: candidates with physical disabilities and women are encouraged to apply. Out of the four to six candidates that the ESA will recruit, one will be a person with physical disabilities.

The ESA doesn’t have the best track record for inclusivity. If you go through the application page and recruitment information on the ESA site, you will see that they reiterate multiple times that women are encouraged to apply. This is because women have often been overlooked in space travel. Now, the ESA is working hard to be more inclusive–as they desperately need to. Right now their only active female astronaut is Samantha Cristoforetti. Their previous crop of astronauts also had only one female member, according to the ESA website. The last astronaut call in 2008 saw only 16% of the applicants as female.

But disability has also been another large barrier in space. The ESA lists one of the ‘disabilities’ that candidates can have as “short stature”. Sounds strange? Historically in space travel, a short height has been seen as a physical disability that will disqualify a candidate from becoming an astronaut. Until now, you could only go to space if you were a paragon of ‘physical wellness.’ According to NASA, their candidates must have 20/20 vision in each eye, and their standing heights must be between 62 and 75 inches. However, it is clear that there is potential in hiring disabled astronauts–people who are qualified for the job in every other aspect but physical ability.

But consider this incident: The Scientific American reported that in 2001, a mix of soap and tears in his helmet temporarily blinded Canadian astronaut, Chris Hadfield, impeding his ability to continue his spacewalk. I think this shows that there is already a need to include measures that make spacesuits (and other technology that astronauts use) more intuitive and responsive to multiple sensory stimuli, not just sight. More inclusive technology, if you will.

Of course, a lot of research has to be done, as with any first-time project. The physically disabled candidate recruited through this open call will join the “Parastronaut Fly!” Feasibility Project, which is the ESA’s intensive study on whether or not this venture is possible. They say on their website that they are willing to invest in the technology which will allow a ‘parastronaut’ to perform their tasks in space.

After all, as ESA Astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti said to BBC News, “We did not evolve to go to space so when it comes to space travel, we are all disabled.”

This simple concept makes so much sense! Astronauts use technology, design, and loads of fail-safes to keep themselves alive and to perform their tasks successfully. It would simply be a question of adapting the technology to work for an astronaut with a physical disability. This is interesting not just for this current recruitment, but for the possibility of people with different disabilities becoming astronauts in the future.

Clearly, there is a long way to go before space becomes fully inclusive. Currently, the ESA has one female astronaut and zero astronauts with physical disabilities. Perhaps in as soon as a couple of years, we may see a drastic change in these numbers. But this news really gives me is hope for the future, and I’m happy to take it.

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By Supreeta Balasubramanian

Supreeta Balasubramanian grew up in Dubai, studied in Dubai, India and London and now lives in Chennai, India. She has a Bachelor's degree in Computer Science Engineering and an MA in Creative Writing and Publishing. Her true passions are proofreading, editing, writing and reading. She enjoys words and would love to live the rest of her life playing with them!