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European Space Agency announces call for 'parastronauts' with disabilities

British astronaut Tim Peake walked in space outside the International Space Station on Jan. 15, 2016. ESA announced in 2021 that it is opening up its astronaut pool to applicants with physical disabilities.
British astronaut Tim Peake walked in space outside the International Space Station on Jan. 15, 2016. ESA announced in 2021 that it is opening up its astronaut pool to applicants with physical disabilities. (Image credit: NASA Johnson (via Flickr))

The European Space Agency is diversifying its astronaut pool with its first call for astronauts that is open to candidates with physical disabilities. 

In this call for new astronauts, the agency's first recruitment drive in over a decade, ESA announced that it plans to accept four to six career astronauts (who will be permanent ESA staff) and about 20 "reserve astronauts," who could fly for shorter missions to destinations like the International Space Station

As part of this call for astronaut applicants, ESA Director General Jan Wörner revealed during a recent news briefing that the agency is aiming to bring its first "parastronaut," or astronaut with physical disabilities, on board, according to SpaceNews

As part of what it calls the "Parastronaut feasibility project," "ESA 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 crew members on a safe and useful space mission," the agency said in a statement, adding that it will open up this opportunity for one or more applicants. 

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ESA started its "Parastronaut Feasibility Project" to include physically disabled astronauts.  (Image credit: ESA)

For this parastronaut, who would be the first astronaut with physical disabilities selected not just by ESA but in history, the agency is "looking for individual(s) who are psychologically, cognitively, technically and professionally qualified to be an astronaut, but have a physical disability that would normally prevent them from being selected due to the requirements imposed by the use of current space hardware," ESA added in the same statement. 

ESA consulted with the Paralympic Committee to determine exactly which physical disabilities would work consistently with space missions, according to a New York Times. Currently, the agency is accepting applicants with leg amputations, significant differences in leg length or who are very short (typically, space agencies have a height minimum for astronaut candidates), according to the Times, though the agency hopes to expand this opportunity to others in the future. 

After being recruited, astronaut candidates chosen as part of this project would work with the agency to determine what physical accommodations they might need to fly to space. 

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There are a number of reasons that the agency lists for including applicants with physical disabilities. One reason is that "we believe that exploration is the matter of a collective effort, we need to extend the pool of talents we can rely on in order to continue progressing in our endeavour," ESA shared in the same statement.

Additionally, "visible representation is always important and so therefore we’ve been asking ourselves, what are the barriers preventing us from flying a physically disabled astronaut to the ISS," Wörner said according to SpaceNews

ESA can not guarantee a flight for any astronaut selected, they added in the same statement. However, the agency expects to recruit one parastronaut to its astronaut reserves as part of this new call for applicants, David Parker, ESA director of human and robotic exploration, said, according to SpaceNews. 

In addition to selecting the first astronauts with a physical disability, ESA shared that it will work to "bring innovations and other benefits to the safety and efficiency of future crews," the agency said in the statement. 

Additionally, ESA is working to increase diversity within its astronaut pool in more ways than one. ESA recently shared that it is also looking to increase gender diversity within its astronaut pool, stating that they are "strongly encouraging women to apply." 

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Chelsea Gohd

Chelsea Gohd joined as an intern in the summer of 2018 and returned as a Staff Writer in 2019. After receiving a B.S. in Public Health, she worked as a science communicator at the American Museum of Natural History and even wrote an installation for the museum's permanent Hall of Meteorites. Chelsea has written for publications including Scientific American, Discover Magazine Blog, Astronomy Magazine, Live Science, All That is Interesting, AMNH Microbe Mondays blog, The Daily Targum and Roaring Earth. When not writing, reading or following the latest space and science discoveries, Chelsea is writing music and performing as her alter ego Foxanne (@foxannemusic). You can follow her on Twitter @chelsea_gohd.