Of the 17 astronauts who have been selected by ESA, 11 are reserve astronauts and five are career astronauts.
For the first time ever, the European Space Agency has recruited a person with a disability to be a part of its next generation of astronauts. The historic move is the agency's first step toward sending a "parastronaut" to space. John McFall, a 41-year-old Paralympian sprinter who currently works as a doctor, is one of the 17 candidates who will be joining the space agency's 2022 astronaut class. There were close to 22,500 applicants for the class.
According to The Washington Post, the selected candidates will finish one year of basic training in space science and medicine at the European Astronaut Center in Cologne, Germany, before moving on to the Space Station training phase where they will learn to operate station elements and transport vehicles.
McFall will participate in the ESA's Parastronaut Feasibility Project which aims to "develop options for the inclusion of astronauts with physical disabilities in human spaceflight and possible future missions." The agency said that while they can't yet guarantee that McFall would be sent to space, they will try their best and as "seriously as they can."
With McFall participating in the program, the agency also wants to understand what is needed to send a person with a disability into space.
McFall lost his right leg in a motorcycle cycle at the age of 19, but that didn't stop him from representing the UK in the 2008 Beijing Paralympic Games. He won a bronze medal there. McFall told KTVU, "I lost my leg about twenty-plus years ago, I've had the opportunity to be a paralympic athlete and really explored myself emotionally... All those factors and hardships in life have given me confidence and strength—the ability to believe in myself that I can do anything I put my mind to."
However, McFall admitted that he never thought he would get the opportunity to become an astronaut. "I'm extremely excited about using the skills that I have for problem-solving, identifying issues, and overcoming obstacles that allow people with a physical disability to perform the job equally to their able-bodied counterparts," he said.
Fantastic news for the British space sector – reaching new heights every day.— Rishi Sunak (@RishiSunak) November 23, 2022
Huge congratulations to Rosemary Coogan and Meganne Christian, and to John McFall for becoming the world’s first parastronaut 🚀 https://t.co/D58i4WmF7C
McFall called his selection "a real turning point and mark in history." His curiosity to understand a few questions led him to apply for the program. "What actually happens to someone with lower limb amputation in microgravity? What happens to their residual limb?" he asked. "Science is for everyone, and space travel, hopefully, can be for everyone."
According to ESA, of the 17 astronauts who have been selected, 11 are reserve astronauts and five are career astronauts. This is reportedly the first time since 2009 that the ESA has chosen a new class of space explorers to join its ranks. The class also includes two women, another underrepresented group in space, Sophie Adenot from France and Rosemary Coogan from the UK.
BIG NEWS!— Peter Gillibrand (@GillibrandPeter) November 23, 2022
The British Paralympian and Swansea Uni graduate, John McFall, has become the European Space Agency's first disabled astronaut.
The 41-year-old sprinter lost his leg in a motorbike accident when he was 19 - and could become the first disabled person to go into space!! pic.twitter.com/5plE3oaA0q
Earlier, to encourage persons with disabilities to apply for the program, the ESA said "the expectations of society towards diversity and inclusivity have changed," and that "including people with special needs also means benefiting from their extraordinary experience, ability to adapt to difficult environments, and point of view."
Dan Huot, a spokesman for NASA's Johnson Space Center, said that "we at NASA are watching ESA's para-astronaut selection process with great interest." He added that while "NASA's selection criteria currently remains the same," the agency is looking forward to working with the "new astronauts in the future" from partners such as the ESA.