Zero-G flight for disability ambassadors shows space is accessible for all

Participants float during an AstroAccess disabled research parabolic flight conducted on Dec. 15, 2022.
Participants float during an AstroAccess disabled research parabolic flight conducted on Dec. 15, 2022. (Image credit: Zero G Photographer Tasha Dixon)

A giant leap for disability inclusion took place on a parabolic flight this month.

AstroAccess flew its first formal space research flight on Dec. 15, with 14 disability ambassadors taking flight on a Zero-G plane, the project announced. Participants flew science projects grouped by several crew focuses, called Blind, Mobility, Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing.

"AstroAccess is proving that space can one day be accessible for everyone," stated (opens in new tab) space entrepreneur and Space For Humanity founder Dylan Taylor, who made it to orbit himself in 2021 on board a Blue Origin New Shepard system. Taylor co-sponsored the flight along with AstroAccess co-founder George Whitesides (former CEO of Virgin Galactic) and Amy Dornbusch, a winemaker and angel investor. 

Related: Disability ambassadors successfully complete Zero-G flight

The participants used a "Zero-G (opens in new tab)" aircraft that flew 18 parabolas starting from an altitude of 25,000 feet (7,620 meters). The mission took off and landed at Ellington Airport in Houston, nearby NASA's Johnson Space Center where astronauts do training in the United States.

"While there is still work to be done to make space accessible for everyone, the success of this historic parabolic flight and ESA's selection of John McFall show strong movement in the right direction," Anna Voelker, the executive director of AstroAccess, said in the same statement.

AstroAccess flew two fewer people than expected (it originally forecast 16 participants) and about a week later than scheduled, but did not say in a press release why the flight changes were made. The Dec. 15 flight was the second-ever dedicated flight for the organization after it opened opportunities in 2021 to any adult with disabilities living in the United States.

These were the experiments the crew ran, according to AstroAccess:

  • The Blind Crew tested tactile graphics for cabin walls to allow both blind crew members and sighted crew members to stay oriented during emergencies and find emergency gear. 
  • The Blind and Mobility Crews also demonstrated that a disabled person can independently get into a launch seat and safely fasten the five-point seat harness. 
  • In collaboration with Sony and SonicCloud, the Hard-of-Hearing and Blind Crews demonstrated a system to enable improved speech understanding using Sony headphones and SonicCloud's software that tailors audio to their hearing ability.
  • The Deaf crew continued their work on linguistics studies of intelligibility of American Sign Language (ASL) in zero gravity, following research on another parabolic flight and a scuba diving experiment.

The flight is taking place as space begins to include more people with disabilities, including the privately-funded SpaceX Inspiration4 flight of Hayley Arceneaux last year and the European Space Agency's (ESA) November selection of paralympian trauma surgeon John McFall.

Elizabeth Howell is the co-author of "Why Am I Taller (opens in new tab)?" (ECW Press, 2022; with Canadian astronaut Dave Williams), a book about space medicine. Follow her on Twitter @howellspace (opens in new tab). Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom (opens in new tab) or Facebook (opens in new tab).

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell, Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022. She was contributing writer for Space.com (opens in new tab) for 10 years before that, since 2012. Elizabeth's reporting includes an exclusive with Office of the Vice-President of the United States, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and (soon) a Bachelor of History from Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science since 2015. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: https://qoto.org/@howellspace