PARIS (AP) — The European Space Agency (ESA) made history Wednesday by selecting an amputee who lost a leg in a motorcycle accident to be among its newest group of astronauts — a leap toward its pioneering ambition to send someone with a physical disability into space.
John McFall, a 41-year-old Briton who lost his right leg when he was 19 and went on to compete in the Paralympics, called his selection as Europe’s answer to NASA “a real turning point and mark in history.”
“ESA has a commitment to send an astronaut with a physical disability into space… This is the first time a space agency has attempted such a project. And it sends a really, really strong message to humanity,” he said.
The newly minted astronaut joins five career astronauts in the final selection revealed during a news conference in Paris — the conclusion of the agency’s first recruitment drive in more than a decade aimed at bringing diversity to space travel.
The list also included two women: France’s Sophie Adeno and Britain’s Rosemary Coogan (England), new ambassadors of another largely underrepresented section for European astronauts. A small minority of those who explored space were women, and most were American.
However, Wednesday’s list did not include people of color. The recruitment campaign did not specifically refer to ethnic diversity, but emphasized at the time the importance of “representing all parts of our society”.
McPhail will follow a different path than his fellow astronauts because he will participate in a groundbreaking feasibility study that will test whether a physical disability will hinder space travel. It’s uncharted territory, as no major Western space agency has ever put an astronaut into space, according to the ESA.
Speaking proudly amid flashes of emotion, McFall said he was uniquely suited to the task because of the vigor of his mind and body.
“I’m very comfortable in my own skin. I lost my leg about 20 plus years ago, I had the opportunity to be a para-Olympic athlete and I really explored myself emotionally… All the factors and difficulties in life gave me confidence and strength – the ability to believe in myself that I can do anything I mean him,” he added.
“I never dreamed of being an astronaut. It wasn’t until ESA announced that they were looking for a candidate with a physical disability to go on this project that it really piqued my interest.”
The feasibility study, which will take two to three years, will examine the basic obstacles for a paratrooper, including how a physical disability might affect mission training, and if modifications to spacesuits and aircraft are required, for example.
ESA’s director of human and robotic exploration, David Parker, said it was still a “long way” for McFall, but described the new hire as a long-standing ambition.
Parker said it started with a question. “Maybe there are people out there who are almost superhuman in that they have already overcome challenges. And can they become astronauts?”
Parker also said he “thinks” this may be the first time the word “pre-astronaut” has been used, but “I don’t claim ownership.”
“We’re saying that John (McFall) could be the first preastronaut, meaning someone who is selected in the normal astronaut selection process but happens to have a disability that would normally rule him out,” he said.
It will be at least five years before McPhail goes into space as an astronaut – if he succeeds.
Across the Atlantic, Houston took notice. Dan Huth, a spokesman for NASA’s Johnson Space Center, home of the US agency’s astronaut corps, said AP Because “we at NASA are watching the ESA para-astronaut selection process with great interest.”
Huot acknowledged that “NASA’s selection criteria currently remain the same,” but said the agency looks forward to working with “new future astronauts” from partners like ESA.