Inclusivity in space: ESA’s Parastronaut Project

The European Space Agency has called for would-be astronauts whose physical disabilities would previously selection previously, reports Mark Broadbent

Were you to be asked to imagine what astronauts look like, it is highly likely a picture would spring to mind of supremely strong men and women at the peak of their physical powers.

After all, astronauts must be fit enough to handle the rigours of spaceflight – riding the dramatic mission launch, living in zero-g conditions for months while conducting research, undertaking demanding spacewalks and enduring the violent return home through Earth’s atmosphere.

Image 1
Details of ESA’s Parastronaut initiative
All images courtesy of the European Space Agency

Having a disability seems incompatible with this environment – or, at least, entirely contrary to the heroic ‘supermen’ and ‘superwomen’ image of astronauts that has built up over decades of human spaceflight, reinforced by countless tropes in literature, film and TV of how astronauts ‘should’ look.

The European Space Agency (ESA) is looking to change such preconceptions through its Parastronaut initiative, which encouraged people with disabilities to apply for its latest round of recruitment for astronaut training, open for applications from February to June 2021.

The agency will select five new astronauts next year to join either ESA’s permanent astronaut corps, which is currently seven-strong (the UK’s Tim Peake among them) or a newly created reserve pool of astronauts eligible for further training, with future missions in mind. It is intended that one of the chosen quintet will have a physical disability.

ESA claims Parastronaut is the first time any space agency has investigated how disabled people might gain professional opportunities in spaceflight.

The successful candidate will work with ESA to assess current spacecraft and determine adaptations required for a disabled astronaut to serve as a professional crew member on a future space mission.

Parastronaut has added significance because only rarely does ESA put out a call for new astronauts. It has done so just three times since 1978 and not since 2008/09, when Peake was among the successful applicants.

Disabled applicants were required to upload a medical certificate issued in English by any physician stating that, were it not for their disability, they would comply with the requirements of the European Union Aviation Safety Agency Part-MED Class 2, the medical certificate issued to civil pilots.

If applicants reach the second stage of the recruitment process, they might be requested to provide a medical report and associated documentation and respond to a questionnaire for further information.

Feasibility project
The disability criteria for parastronauts were tightly defined, referring specifically to a lower-limb deficiency through the ankle or below the knee, a pronounced leg length difference, or a stature below 1.3m.

Image 2
European Space Agency astronaut Matthias Maurer trains underwater at Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center in Moscow

Regarding the scope of the Parastronaut initiative, Guillaume Weerts, ESA’s space medicine team leader, based at the European Astronaut Centre in Cologne, told AIR International: “Some criticism came about the limited list of eligible disabilities. This [is] only a starting point and will develop.”

ESA stresses that Parastronaut is a “feasibility project” to “shed light on the many unknowns and clarify the prerequisites for a safe and useful space mission of an astronaut with a physical disability”.

The agency took the International Paralympics Committee’s categorisation of physical impairment as the baseline for its definition of disability in Parastronaut.

This grades physical tasks as red (when the kind and degree of disability is not safely compatible with the task), yellow (when disability could become fully compatible with the task with some adjustments, modifications or innovations), and green (when the disability is fully compatible with the task without any adjustments).

ESA said: “Our staff are further assessing what is needed to ensure a nominal level of individual and collective safety for such a mission. With this project, we will do everything to foster these changes in co-operation with spaceflight providers and international partners.” These discussions, along with technical studies and space simulations, will clarify the prerequisites for accommodating astronauts with disabilities and implementing adaptations and innovations that ESA  hopes “will pave the way for these astronaut(s) to fly”.

Why now?
ESA believes that since it selected the last cohort of new astronauts in 2008/09, “the expectations of society towards diversity and inclusivity have changed”.

The agency said: “The high cost of the human spaceflight programme (which is funded by European taxpayers) means that ESA cannot and does not want to ignore these changes. Fair representation of all parts of society is a high focus of action for governments, institutions and business alike.”

It added: “We have learned by working on the International Space Station that there is great value in diversity. Including people with special needs also means benefitting from their extraordinary experience, ability to adapt to difficult environments, and point of view. We have the strong conviction that there is a way to enable this level of inclusiveness in the astronaut corps and in space and that calls to our responsibility to, at the very least, try it.”

Weerts told AIR International: “Opening professional spaceflight activities to a wider group of persons is also a goal pursued by space medicine practitioners around the globe when regularly adapting astronauts’ medical selection criteria. It was just natural that the two processes would merge and that a space agency would address the question of disabled persons in space.”

ESA believes Parastronaut could have wider benefits: “Having people who live with a disability carry out experiments [in space] could bring some new, astonishing results in the field of life sciences for the benefit of even more people back on Earth.” Regarding disability at work, the agency aims to “inspire people with special needs” to apply for jobs at ESA and in the space sector.

Body and mind
Spaceflight is obviously hugely challenging physically and, as a rule, ESA wants the prospective astronaut to have a good range of motion and functionality in all joints.

Image 3
European Space Agency astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti undertakes ingress/egress training at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas ESA / James Blair

Significantly, this was not mandatory for Parastronaut applicants. However, given that astronauts live in microgravity for months aboard the International Space Station and undertake moderate to arduous physical exertion, applicants must still meet very stringent baseline medical and psychological health standards.

ESA said: “Being an astronaut is extremely demanding on the body and mind, with long periods away from family and friends, high workload and irregular working hours and routines beyond the comfort zone. The wellbeing of the astronaut, alongside that of the whole team, is the condition for the success of each mission.”

Somewhat counter-intuitively, perhaps, ESA does not specifically look for extreme fitness or high-level athleticism in astronaut training candidates. It noted: “Over-developed muscles may actually be a disadvantage for astronauts living in weightlessness.”

Tough requirements
Outstanding academic and scientific credentials are a prerequisite. ESA prescribes a minimum of a Master’s degree in natural sciences (such as physical sciences; Earth, atmosphere or ocean sciences; biological sciences), medicine, engineering, maths or computer sciences, from a recognised academic institution. A PhD or equivalent degree is considered beneficial.

Candidates must have at least three years of professional experience after graduation, such as working in a lab, conducting field research, or working in a hospital. Applicants should have a degree as an experimental test pilot and/or test engineer from institutions such as EPNER in France, the UK’s Empire Test Pilots School, the US Air Force Test Pilots School, US Navy Test Pilots School, or the National Test Pilot School in California.

Obviously, astronauts must work efficiently together in an intellectually and socially challenging environment in confined spaces and under stressful conditions. It is therefore considered advantageous for applicants to have supported effective teamwork and reached challenging objectives in groups.

ESA said: “Rather than excelling in any one area, it is most important for astronauts to be well-rounded team players who demonstrate competence across a wide range of tasks and disciplines.”

What ESA calls a “sound risk management capability” is considered another crucial asset, given the significant dangers inherent in spaceflight, and that is one reason why so many astronauts through the decades hail from a military testing background.

Huge interest
Reading ESA’s requirements makes it clear there will only ever be so many suitable candidates for astronaut training, with the number of people matching the Parastronaut requirements probably smaller still.

Still, in June 2021 ESA released encouraging news about its latest recruitment drive. There were more than 22,000 applications for the astronaut training, which came from all 22 ESA member states and associate member countries. Of those, around 200 were for the Parastronaut vacancy.

Weerts told AIR International: “The project has been well received and the number of persons applying to the project has been far above our expectations.”

ESA said it is “ready to invest in defining the necessary adaptations of space hardware in an effort to enable these otherwise excellently qualified professionals to serve as professional crew members”.

The agency aims to gather “a thorough understanding” of the safety and operational challenges regarding disability in space through Parastronaut, saying it has committed €1m to the effort. It will work with spaceflight providers and international partners to analyse the likely measures needed to enable a disabled person to fly as a fully-fledged crew member.

‘Zero to one’
Over the next year, ESA will conduct an intensive selection process to recruit the new astronauts (see, ‘How ESA chooses astronauts’, p95). It plans to announce the successful applicants in mid to late 2022.

There is realism about what’s possible regarding disability. ESA acknowledges “many unknowns” and said “the only promise we can make today is a serious, dedicated and honest attempt” for disabled people to go to space.

“ESA is not in the position today to guarantee a flight for the selected individual(s). Very much like any exploration journey, the answer is not written at the back of any book, but we can commit to trying as hard and seriously as we can,” the agency acknowledged.

But it insists that Parastronaut will “foster a great deal of innovation in the field of procedures and technology for human spaceflight training, launch, on-board activities and landing”.

“We do not know if we can identify answers to all the questions. However, it takes courage to make the first step and that is what we are doing,” said ESA.

“Because physical disabilities have up until now been avoided in space, we had to start from somewhere.

“We are at step zero,” the agency concluded, with the door completely “closed” to disability. “We have the ambition to open this door and make a leap, to go from zero to one.” 

More female astronauts
The first woman in space was Valentina Tereshkova. This was as long ago as 1963, yet of the more than 500 people who have now gone into orbit to live and work (not just on a brief suborbital hop), only 65 have been women. Of those, 51 were American.

Image 4
Only 65 women have been into space, including Roscosmos cosmonaut Elena Serove, pictured on the International Space Station in 2014

The European Space Agency has sent women to the International Space Station (ISS) on only two occasions. Claudie Haigneré flew in October 2001 (having been to Russia’s Mir space station five years earlier on a Russian-French mission). More recently, Samantha Cristoforetti, formerly with the Aeronautica Militare (Italian Air Force), made her ISS debut in November 2014.

Cristoforetti is one of seven astronauts making up what the European Space Agency (ESA) calls its ‘astronaut corps’ and is currently in training for her next mission to the ISS in 2022. (She also went to the ISS in 2019 with NASA.)

ESA sought to redress the gender imbalance with its latest astronaut recruitment efforts by encouraging female applicants. There was progress: according to initial figures released by the agency, around 5,400 applicants identify as female. This accounted for 24% of the total applications received, up from 15.5% in the last astronaut recruitment in 2008/09.

David Parker, ESA director of human and robotic exploration, said: “It is pleasing to see an increase in the gender distribution of applicants to this astronaut selection, but the numbers also show there is more to be done to achieve gender balance in the space sector.”

How ESA chooses astronauts
Prospective ESA astronauts must come from an ESA member or associate member state, have a Master’s degree in relevant subjects and professional post-graduate experience.

Image 5
Astronauts together on the International Space Station in August 2021

They must also have “strong motivation” and an ability to cope with irregular working hours, frequent travel, long absences from home, flexibility regarding workplace, calmness under pressure and a willingness to participate in life science experiments.

Candidates undergo medical and mental screening, cognitive, technical, motor co-ordination, personality and psychometric testing on a group and individual basis. Applicants are tested on technical and behavioural competencies, their educational qualifications verified and criminal records checked. Steps in this process are not graduated: it is either pass or fail.

Interviews are conducted and candidates undergo physical fitness tests, which include bicycle or treadmill exercises. Candidates must have 100% vision in both eyes (20/20 vision) and pass acuity, colour perception and 3D vision tests.

Wearing glasses or contact lenses is not a reason for disqualification, but would be evaluated if a visual defect is known to progress rapidly. Previous surgical interventions to correct visual acuity can lead to disqualification from the application process.

Applicants cannot have any hearing impairment; they must have a hearing capacity of 25dB or better, and they must comply with the body size requirements of the vehicles used by ESA partner agencies.

Candidates must pass a swimming test and undergo parabolic flight training to simulate microgravity and zero gravity environments, with up to eight hours a day underwater using scuba gear or the Extravehicular Mobility Unit, aka spacesuit.