A future for people with disabilities in space takes off

Eric Ingram generally travels the world in his wheelchair. The 31-year-old CEO of SCOUT Inc., a smart satellite components company, was born with Freeman-Sheldon syndrome, a rare condition that affects his joints and prevented him from achieving his dream of becoming an astronaut. He applied and was rejected, twice.

But aboard a special plane flight this week, he soared effortlessly through the air, touching nothing. Getting around, he found, was easier in the simulated weightless environment where he needed so few tools to help him.

While simulating lunar gravity in flight – which is about one sixth that of Earth – he discovered something even more surprising: for the first time in his life, he could stand upright.

“It was legitimately weird,” he said. “Just standing upright was probably almost as foreign to me as floating in zero gravity.”

He was one of 12 disabled passengers who swam through the air aboard a parabolic flight in Southern California last Sunday in an experiment testing how people with disabilities behave in a zero gravity environment. Parabolic flights, which fly through the Earth’s atmosphere in alternating arcs, allow passengers to experience weightlessness on ascending arcs during repeated short bursts, and are an integral part of astronaut training.

The flight was organized by AstroAccess, a non-profit initiative that aims to make spaceflight accessible to everyone. Although around 600 people have been to space since human spaceflight began in the 1960s, NASA and other space agencies have long limited the work of an astronaut to a tiny slice of humanity. The US agency initially selected only white, physically fit males to be astronauts, and even when the agency expanded its criteria, it still only selected people who met certain physical requirements.

This has blocked the path to space for many people with disabilities, neglecting arguments that people with disabilities could make excellent astronauts in some cases.

But the rise of private spaceflight, funded by billionaires with backing from government space agencies, creates the possibility of enabling a much larger and more diverse group of people to take journeys to the far reaches of space and beyond. of the. And people with disabilities aim to be included.

Participants in Sunday’s AstroAccess flight argue accessibility issues need to be addressed now – with the advent of private space travel – rather than later, as upgrading equipment to make it accessible would take longer. time and money.

The Federal Aviation Administration is prohibited from creating safety rules for private spaceflight until October 2023. Initiatives like AstroAccess aim to guide how government agencies view accessibility on spaceflight.

“It is crucial that we are able to get ahead of this regulatory process and prevent misinformation or lack of information or lack of data from making bad regulations that would prevent a person with a disability from flying on one of these trips. “said Mr. Ingram.

The group also hopes that making everything accessible from the start could lead to new spatial innovations useful to all, regardless of disability.

For example, Sawyer Rosenstein, another AstroAccess passenger, is quick to point out that the lightweight metal alloys used in his wheelchair are a by-product of NASA innovations. Mr. Rosenstein, 27, has been paralyzed from the waist to the feet since an injury in college.

Banned from space itself, Mr. Rosenstein has become a journalist who often reports on space, most notably for a podcast, Talking Space.

During the Sunday flight. Mr Rosenstein wore a specially modified flight suit with a strap he could grab to bend his knees and maneuver his legs.

“I was in control of myself and my whole body,” Mr. Rosenstein said. “It’s almost indescribable to have this freedom after being deprived of it for so long. “

He also found he was more flexible in zero gravity, where he could finally test his full range of motion. And the chronic pain he usually feels throughout his body went away during the flight, he said. Like Mr. Ingram, he could also stand on his own. They both suggested that their experiences indicate that weightlessness or reduced gravity could have potential therapeutic applications.

With just a few modifications for each type of disability, Ann Kapusta, director of mission and communications for AstroAccess, said the dozen participants in the flight had an approximately 90 percent success rate in returning to their seats after 15 tests – 12 in zero gravity, two that mimicked lunar gravity and one that mimicked Martian gravity.

AstroAccess performed these tests – each lasting 20 to 30 seconds – to ensure that people with disabilities can perform a suborbital flight, like the one Jeff Bezos did in July, and sit safely in the limited time before the start of the school year. This is a typical formation for suborbital flights, but not for orbital flights, which do not have the same critical time before reentry.

The relative ease of the flight surprised some members of the team, including Tim Bailey, executive director of Yuri’s Night, a space education-focused nonprofit that sponsors AstroAccess. At first, he said he feared people with disabilities would be more fragile and require additional medical precautions.

“My biggest takeaway from this is my initial reaction of ‘Oh my gosh this is going to be hard’ was wrong,” he said. “They didn’t need a lot of extra stuff.”

But getting around the plane was not without challenges, said Centra Mazyck, 45, who was injured and became partially paralyzed while serving as a member of the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division. American.

“It’s very difficult because it’s like you’re floating, you’re light as a feather,” she said. “You don’t know your strengths or your weaknesses.”

Sunday’s parabolic flight was reminiscent of that of 2007 with Stephen Hawking, the physicist, who suffered from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS.But unlike Dr. Hawking’s flight, this one aimed to research the ability of people with disabilities to function independently in space and develop tools. they could use to do it.

In addition to spacesuits modified for passengers with reduced mobility, researchers tested special lighting systems for deaf passengers and braille and navigation devices for blind passengers.

To navigate the plane as a blind man, Mona Minkara, 33, tested an ultrasound device and a haptic, or vibrating device, both of which signaled her approaching the plane’s walls and other objects. But the most useful device, she said, was the simplest: an extendable cane.

“What surprised me was that there were times when I knew exactly where I was and how I was coping,” she said.

Dr Minkara, a bioengineer at Northeastern University in Boston, pointed out that making spacecraft navigable for blind people would also help keep other astronauts safe if the lights go out during a space emergency.

Some on Sunday’s flight once dreamed of becoming professional astronauts and hoped this research might open the door for other people with disabilities to get the job.

The European Space Agency announced this year that it is accepting applications from astronauts from those with an amputated leg or who are particularly small, and hopes to expand to include more types of disabilities in the future. NASA spokeswoman Courtney Beasley said the US agency is not currently considering changing its selection criteria.

The rules of some private space companies are more lenient than those of government agencies. Although SpaceX did not respond to requests for comment, Hayley Arceneaux became the first person with a prosthesis to fly into orbit in September on the Inspiration4 flight aboard the company’s Crew Dragon capsule.

Axiom Space, which books flights on the SpaceX vehicle to the International Space Station, and Virgin Galactic, which flies a suborbital space plane, do not have a list of disqualification conditions for astronauts, and say they are considering a accommodation on a case-by-case basis. based.

Virgin Galactic chief medical officer Dr Tarah Castleberry said the company will conduct medical examinations for each astronaut to ensure safety and is currently considering flying people with aids, hearing impairments, paralysis and other medical conditions and physical disabilities.

Blue Origin, the company owned by Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, said in a statement that passengers must meet its own list of functional requirements that may exclude people who are blind, deaf or have reduced mobility from the flight.

Apurva Varia, 48, is deaf and among those who would continue to be excluded by such rules.

“Space organizations told us we can’t go to space, but why? Show me the proof, ”he said.

In ninth grade, Mr. Varia remembers watching the launch of a space shuttle on television. The channel didn’t have closed captions, so Mr. Varia didn’t understand what the shuttle was, or why people were sitting inside in orange suits. When the countdown hit zero, he said he was amazed to see it explode in the sky and disappear.

Soon after, Mr. Varia wrote a letter to NASA asking if he could apply to become an astronaut. He received a response saying that NASA could not accept deaf astronauts at the time.

Mr. Varia went on to earn advanced engineering degrees and worked for NASA for two decades leading space missions and helping to design propulsion systems for satellites.

On Sunday’s flight, he got a little closer to his dream. He found himself bumping into walls and ceilings as he attempted to sign in American Sign Language and attempted to drink a large bubble of floating water, which splashed over his face.

“It was an extraordinary experience,” he said. “I hope to go to space one day.”

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