Historically, there has always been a requirement that astronauts be well-educated, skilled individuals in outstanding physical condition. Given these high standards, “only about 550 people have been in orbit around our planet.” Until now, people with physical disabilities who fit the profile have not had the opportunity to take part in space agency expeditions. However, that is about to change. “No one has ever put somebody with a disability in space. Why not?” questioned Lucy van der Tas, head of talent acquisition at the European Space Agency (ESA).
European Space Agency Initiates Parastronaut Feasibility Project
To provide this well-deserved opportunity to people with disabilities, the Parastronaut Feasibility Project will aim to include “candidates with some physical disabilities.” Specifically, ESA is planning to invest in the necessary adaptations of hardware to allow these individuals to serve as professional crew members on a safe space mission.
By including candidates with selected disabilities, ESA is trying to better understand and identify the “potential challenges in terms of safety and operations in space,” aiming to extend the scope of disabilities for broader inclusion in the near future.
Any individuals holding a related Master's degree or PhD and with a lower limb deficiency, a leg length difference, or short stature (<130 cm) will now be able to apply for positions at ESA.
Diversity and Inclusiveness
Ms. van der Tas, head of talent acquisition at ESA, encourages more women to apply, noting that only one out of the six astronauts from the last recruitment was female. The agency aims to increase that number to 50 percent, while making the entire process more inclusive.
Although inclusive of more people than in the past, the ESA's program is just a start.
While Ms. van der Tas expressed relief to see people with disabilities represented, she noted that the current process still rules out many potential applicants who have always dreamed of working in this field.
"There isn't the visibility. And, so you see all the astronauts, you see those people [and think] 'that's not me,'" Tas commented.
While no other space agencies are considering missions for astronauts with disabilities, an emailed statement from NASA expressed a keen interest in following ESA's program:
"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.