Space for All – including parastronauts

Space is becoming inclusive and anyone who wants to go to space should be able to do so, safely and efficiently. However, this is accompanied by numerous new challenges in the industry to prepare equipment and spaces that accommodate additional needs that are new to the space environment. 

ESA has recently selected its first parastronaut and will complete a feasibility study to determine the changes and adjustments required for someone with a physical disability to safely live and work in a microgravity environment. John McFall, a British Paralympic sprinter, has already experienced weightlessness during a parabolic flight with AirZeroG. He will also participate in analogue missions, technical studies, and further space simulations. 

While an incredible achievement, this wasn’t the first time someone with a disability flew on a ZeroG flight. In 2007, Stephen W. Hawking had the chance to experience weightlessness, and thanks to Mission Astro Access, the first 12 people with disabilities (Sina Bahram, Dana Bolles, Mary Cooper, Eric Ingram, Centra Mazyck, Mona Minkara, Viktoria Modesta, Azubuike Onwuta, Sawyer Rosenstein, Eric Shear, Apurva Varia, Dr Sheri Wells-Jensen) experienced the same in 2021. Additional flights have brought even more individuals with disabilities to experience free-fall, including individuals who have come for a second time! In 2021, Hayley Arceneaux flew to space with SpaceX’s Inspiration4 and spent 3 days in orbit.

Humans adjust to physical challenges, proving that our brains and body are marvellous systems. However, launch and landing can be particularly challenging, particularly with concerns related to blood clots and blood circulation. When introducing individuals with disabilities into space, we are presented with unique medical challenges due to their specific conditions. Some of the  medical issues that can affect people with disabilities through the phases of space flight are as follows:

  • Physiological Adaptations: People with disabilities may experience physiological adaptations or changes in response to the microgravity environment. This can include alterations in cardiovascular function, fluid distribution, bone density, muscle atrophy, and changes in sensory perception.
  • Orthopaedic Concerns: Individuals with mobility impairments or musculoskeletal conditions may have orthopaedic concerns related to the effects of acceleration forces during launch and reentry. Special accommodations may be needed to ensure proper positioning, restraint systems, and support during these dynamic phases.
  • Pressure Points and Skin Integrity: Wheelchair users or individuals with limited mobility may be prone to pressure sores or skin breakdown due to prolonged periods of sitting or reduced ability to shift positions. Attention to proper cushioning, pressure relief strategies, and skin care is crucial during long-duration space missions.
  • Assistive Devices: Individuals who rely on assistive devices, such as wheelchairs, prosthetics, or orthotics, may require accommodations to ensure the proper functioning and integration of their devices during launch, landing, and in microgravity. Secure storage, appropriate restraints, and accessibility considerations for device use should be addressed.
  • Medication Administration: Individuals with disabilities may require medication for their specific conditions. Proper medication administration, storage, and adherence protocols need to be established in the space environment, considering factors such as dosage adjustments, storage conditions, and potential interactions with the space environment.
  • Personal Care and Hygiene: Depending on the nature of the disability, individuals may require assistance or adaptations for personal care and hygiene activities, including toileting, bathing, and dressing. Adequate privacy, accessibility, and support systems should be in place to address these needs.
  • Psychological Considerations: Individuals with disabilities may face unique psychological challenges associated with their condition during space missions. Psychological support, counselling, and resources should be available to address any emotional or mental health concerns. 

It’s important to note that each individual’s medical needs and disabilities are unique, and comprehensive pre-flight assessments and personalized accommodations should be established to ensure the safety, health, and well-being of astronauts with disabilities during all phases of space travel. To reach maximum effectiveness and potential, it is critical to look at the entire operation of the space station, as well as habitats and launch vehicles to determine the best way to meet the requirements of the parastronauts. These reviews should take place during the initial design phase of the missions to allow for time to collaborate and problem-solve with all engineering teams and consult with the parastronauts and their support teams.

There is a real need for inclusive design principles and considerations for ensuring accessibility, mobility, and support for astronauts with disabilities in space habitats and spacecraft. This will reach its maximum potential by starting as a collaboration between prospective parastronauts, engineers, and space architects.

It’s time to start this conversation from an architectural design perspective and Astro SpArch aims to gain momentum by building on these growing initiatives and by beginning the collaboration process.

Further details on ESA’s feasibility study here.