Europe is looking for astronauts and is allowing people with disabilities to apply. This is the big news coming from the PARASTRONAUT project. In fact, 2021 marks a historic turning point: eleven years after the last call for applications – in which Samantha Cristoforetti and Luca Parmitano were recruited – the European Space Agency (ESA) has published a new call for applications to recruit four to six astronauts and ten to twenty reserve astronauts, expressly opening the selection process to people with physical disabilities.
The ESA and Diversity
In the decade following the ESA”s last astronaut selection, in 2008-2009, society’s expectations regarding diversity and inclusion have changed. The high cost of the human spaceflight programme (funded by European taxpayers) means that ESA cannot and will not ignore these changes. “To go further,” says Ersilia Vaudo Scarpetta, Chief Diversity Officer, “is our business, our desire. And in a literal sense, too, since ‘to desire’ etymologically means to miss the stars”. The team at ESA is made up of people from a wide range of cultural, personal, and professional backgrounds; including people with different needs also means benefiting from their points of view and their extraordinary experiences and ability to adapt to difficult environments.
Disability in space
Unlike private initiatives – including the Falcon 9 mission with Hayley Arceneaux, a cancer survivor with an artificial limb – no government space programme has ever considered opening its doors to people with disabilities. Now the ESA is looking for individuals who are psychologically, cognitively, and professionally qualified to be astronauts, and including those with physical disabilities. The ESA has turned to the experiences of the International Paralympic Committee and has opened the selection process to people with the following three disabilities:
– lower limb deficit below the knee (congenital or due to amputation of one or both limbs)
– lower limbs of different length (from birth or because of trauma)
– short stature (<130cm)
The ESA is ready to invest in making the necessary adaptations to space hardware to enable new hires to serve as crew members on a space mission. There are many unknowns and the only promise the ESA can make today is that it will make a serious, dedicated, and honest attempt to pave the path to space for a professional astronaut with a disability. On the other hand, becoming an astronaut does not mean being in space all the time: if you are lucky, you spend 5-10% of your time in space, and the rest on Earth in very different roles.
The cost of the project
It is difficult to estimate the extent of the resources required. However, in view of both the need to adequately engage with multiple stakeholders and the duration of the project, the ESA will allocate an initial budget of €1 million. On the opportunities front, beyond those that are immediately perceptible, the ESA has taken the first step to inspire people with disabilities to pursue education and careers in the space sector, in line with the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. What’s more, astronauts perform many experiments in space, and the fact that people with disabilities conduct such experiments could lead to amazing new results in the field of science to benefit even more people on Earth.