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.