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Parastronauts in space: what a new space programme can tell us about the way we think of disability

The European Space Agency has been pioneering a new programme for sending parastronauts – astronauts with a physical disability – into space. In support of this programme, Dr Irene Di Giulio has been leading investigations into the physiological foundations for a parastronaut programme in space. But what could a space mission tell us about disability and fitness on Earth?

When we consider fitness, and the idea of someone working on their personal fitness, you will likely think of being conventionally physically and mentally fit. For example, have you worked out at the gym to gain enough muscle mass? Or endured enough running to develop the best cardiovascular health possible?

However, as Dr Irene Di Giulio – Lecturer in Anatomy and Biomechanics –notes, this is just one way that fitness can be conceptualised. If you break down the concept further, you can also see fitness as a broader question that simply asks: how well-suited is a person to a task in a particular context?

That might seem somewhat confusing, or redundant in many cases. After all, a professional footballer needs to be as conventionally fit physically and mentally to be suited to the task of winning a game. But what happens to that assumption when you look at when the environment changes, like space?

We are asking what happens to the disability when the environment changes, as with humans in space. Are people with a physical impairment on Earth fitter in outer space? And is it possible that people with a disability can perform tasks better than others?– Dr Irene Di Giulio, Lecturer in Anatomy and Biomechanics

It is this framework that underpins the new, growing research into parastronauts – the term for an astronaut with a physical disability. Traditionally, parastronauts wouldn’t even be considered for an astronaut programme.

Irene is now one of many researchers, both within and beyond King’s, that are now asking the question of how parastronauts are suited to the environment of space and how this compares to their astronaut colleagues. As the Italian astronaut Samantha Cristoferetti quipped: “we did not evolve to go to space, so when it comes to space travel, we are all disabled.”

In 2021, the European Space Agency (ESA) announced the launch of a multi-year project, now called Fly! Campaign, to seriously investigate the feasibility of parastronauts in a space programme. As the programme was established, a diverse international collaboration was developed concurrently to investigate the physiological basis of parastronauts in space underpinned by insights from physiological studies of parathletes.

The programme, green-lit last July, consists of Irene co-ordinating a pan-European team that includes researchers in the Centre for Human & Applied Physiological Sciences, the UK Civil Aviation Authority, and international collaborators in the German Aerospace Centre and University of Padova. Alongside this expertise, the team are collaborating with Aerobility, a charity whose stated goal is to make aviation accessible.

In November 2022, John McFall was selected by the ESA to become the first "parastronaut", recruiting him for their feasibility study.

The initial aims of the project are to investigate how parastronauts adapt to the environment of space, looking closely at the physiological changes experienced, whether some disabilities prove to make the parastronaut better suited to space, and how parastronauts can work with the current tools used in spacecraft. The latter consideration will work alongside investigations into how heavy spacecraft hardware could be adapted to be operated by parastronauts.

But while the initial goal is to make space travel and astronaut programmes more inclusive and better capture talented candidates that would otherwise be marginalised, the benefits aren’t just restricted to parastronauts on a space program.

Unfortunately, funding for these projects is extremely difficult because this work is considered too niche. Often people asked me: why are you doing this? I tend to respond: why not? Why has this not been done before?– Dr Irene Di Giulio, Lecturer in Anatomy and Biomechanics

The technical and scientific developments promised by this project could have far broader applications outside of the spacecraft. To give just one example, the Apollo missions generated many innovations that have surreptitiously benefited life on Earth including (but not limited to) spacesuits technology being incorporated as improvements to firefighting uniform, or the digital imaging processing technology now with a range of medical applications including MRI & CAT scans.

In a similar fashion, the researchers believe that the solutions towards problems experienced by parastronauts in space will have the potential benefits for life on Earth. As well innovations in hardware designed to accommodate parastronauts potentially benefit astronauts or people on Earth, there could be a range of unforeseen applications from the insights of physiological research.

It’s worth emphasising how the project is not just looking at how parastronauts will need support to overcome barriers. The researchers are also considering whether any disability proves beneficial or better suited to the environment of space than their colleagues.

This highlights the broader goal of the programme: to change how people think about disability. When you think about the concept of disability and fitness as how does an individual fit a particular context, you can develop a more holistic picture of the world. In this case, the benefits of bringing in talented parastronauts, better understanding how we all relate to space.

An estimated 1 in 5 people in the world live with a disability – these are people you work and live with in your lives. Asking how people who live with a disability are suited to the task as this project promises to not just create a better, more inclusive world for people living with a disability, but for everyone.

In this story

Irene Di Giulio

Lecturer

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