Mr. McFall, you are the first European astronaut with a physical disability. Did you ever think that was possible?
I never expected to be an astronaut one day. As a child, I would have loved to have flown into space, but when I had a motorcycle accident at the age of 19 and my right leg had to be amputated, I actually knew that this would not be possible. I think everyone has this dream – okay, no, that’s a lie. In the meantime, I have met many people who said: “I would never fly into space.” Again, I was very happy when I saw that ESA was looking for an astronaut with a physical disability.
So why exactly did you apply to Esa?
For me it’s all about opportunities. All I ever wanted was to do something that inspires and interests me. Being an ESA astronaut has so many aspects that are inspiring, interesting and challenging. So I felt compelled to apply. I wouldn’t have done it if I wasn’t convinced that I could be of help to Esa. At first I might have had a bit of hope that they would pick me, but I never thought I would get this far.
There were more than 250 applicants who had similar hopes. Why do you think Esa chose you in the end?
I think different things played a role. My medical and scientific background as a sports and exercise scientist and specialist in trauma and orthopedics. My fitness and physical strength as a former Paralympic sprinter. I have a lot of life experience in different areas. All this together was probably the reason why Esa chose me. Above all, I hope that it has become clear that I feel comfortable in my own skin.
As a professional athlete, you won a bronze medal in the 100 meters at the 2008 Paralympics in Beijing. What was more exciting for you: winning the medal or becoming an astronaut?
This is difficult. The bronze medal in Beijing wasn’t just a bronze medal. She represented my long journey, the hard work that lay behind me – from the moment I lost my leg to the difficulties I overcame to become an athlete. This trip was really important for me. She was an essential part of my life and my rehabilitation. And when I look back, she also helped me to be the person I am today. But ask me that question again if I ever go to space and come back. (laughs)
John McFall (right) is a former professional sprinter – here he dueled with Frenchman Clavel Kayitere in the men’s 200m at the 2007 Paralympic World Cup at the Manchester Regional Arena.
© Source: AFP/Andrew Yates
Why do you want to go into space at all? What fascinates you about it?
I am very interested in human exploration of space, conducting scientific experiments in zero gravity. But what also fascinates me is the challenge for humanity. The challenge of sending people into space and exploring it, learning more about it. And all of this is backed by science and technology. That fascinates me.
And your three children agree that you are now an astronaut and then one day explore space?
We’ve been talking about this at home for over a year. You followed the selection process and knew: Ah, Dad has arrived at this point, Dad is leaving again. There were initially mixed reactions. My youngest child was like, “Dad, I don’t want you to go to space.” Now they are very happy and proud of me. I then told them that the Esa had chosen me, but they couldn’t tell anyone. They were sworn to secrecy. When Esa finally introduced their astronaut class, they were in school. And then they were so proud that they could finally tell everyone.
These are Esa’s new astronauts
The European Space Agency Esa presented its new astronaut class on Wednesday. Among them are five professional astronauts, eleven reserve astronauts and, for the first time, one astronaut with a physical disability. Who are the people who will soon be flying into space?
They are now participating in the Esa feasibility project “Parastronaut fly!” What is it about?
The feasibility project is about understanding and overcoming the scientific and technical difficulties that people with a physical disability might face when working as an astronaut in space. It starts with the training programs on the ground, i.e. with basic training and mission-specific training. The safety requirements for the spacecraft will also play a role. Is it secure enough or does it need to be adjusted? And it’s also about understanding how an amputation would affect working in space, in weightlessness. Are the prostheses an advantage or rather a hindrance? Do the EVA suits (Suits for a spacewalk, note d. editor) be adjusted? These are the questions we want to clarify. We are in the process of clarifying the general conditions for the project and working out the exact time frame.
What do you think you can contribute to the project?
I think I can bring in many aspects from my scientific background, i.e. from my sports science and biomechanical background. Likewise my knowledge of medicine. This could also be very useful for parts of the project. But I think I can also bring my personality and my experiences to inspire people and give them confidence that we can do it.
And a certain amount of pressure is probably also on your shoulders. After all, with your participation in the project, you pave the way for all other astronauts with a physical disability.
I see the project as part of a larger whole. And I am aware that I do not represent the entire disabled population. There are people with other even more complex disabilities. While the project is about me at the moment, I will keep in mind why we are doing this and how it would affect people with other disabilities. And maybe other projects will develop from our experiences in the future.
Why is it even important to fly astronauts with a physical disability into space?
I don’t think that matters. But what’s important is recognizing that people with physical disabilities, or people with different life experiences, can be of tremendous value to the space industry. And through the feasibility project, we can overcome practical hurdles so that a new part of society and the population can actually potentially apply for a job in space. It is an important step towards expanding the catchment area from which the best employees can come.
So should space agencies like ESA have made efforts to recruit astronauts with physical disabilities earlier?
You have to remember that the most important thing for space agencies is that everything runs safely and correctly in their space programs. They must be satisfied with the astronauts’ training. I think we have enough knowledge and experience by now. And most importantly, human exploration of space is taking off at a tremendous rate, so I think now is the right time to do such a feasibility study and answer all these questions.
Will the feasibility project be successful?
I hope so. And I also believe that it will be successful. Considering what mankind has accomplished to even get into space, I don’t think it’s an insurmountable problem for people with a physical disability to go into space. It’s all about finding the right solutions and that will take a little time. I’m very positive and think it’s doable. And I hope that one day I will be the first astronaut with a disability to work in space.
What should your first mission look like?
It all depends on how far the feasibility project takes us. It is very difficult to simulate weightlessness and the forces that affect you when working in space on earth. We can’t fly to the International Space Station for a week and then come back. That’s just too expensive. So the question is, will we gather enough information on the project for me to be able to participate and do some useful work on a long-term mission in low Earth orbit? I would wish that, but I don’t know. It might make sense to start with shorter missions in low Earth orbit to gather some of this information, and then go on to longer, more extensive missions. These are exactly the questions I can hardly wait to clarify and find answers to.