Who will become history's first 'parastronaut'? 

The final frontier: a person with a disability could become a 'parastronaut'

The final frontier: a person with a disability could become a 'parastronaut'. AFP/NASA

PARIS - The first astronaut -- or astronauts -- with a physical disability could be announced as soon as Wednesday, according to the European Space Agency.

People with physical disabilities have previously been excluded from one of the most exclusive and demanding jobs on Earth -- and beyond -- due to strict selection requirements.

Guillaume Weerts, the ESA's head of space medicine, told AFP that the agency's "parastronaut project" required "a complete change in philosophy" about the concept of medical aptitude, which originally came from the military and the selection of fighter pilots.

After carrying out a feasibility study, the ESA said potential candidates could include people who have deficiencies in their lower limbs, whether from amputation or congenital defects.

Shorter people of up to 1.3m tall or those with different leg lengths were also eligible to apply.

The educational and psychological requirements for the candidates remained the same as for any other astronaut. Applications closed in June 2021.

The ESA is expected to name between four to six new European astronauts -- without disabilities -- during its ministerial council in Paris on Wednesday.

While Weerts said the parastronaut project runs somewhat separately, "there is a real possibility that as part of the announcement one or more people with disabilities" will also be presented.

The ESA plans to work with those who are selected to find the best way to overcome potential challenges.

As a member of the selection panel, Weerts could not reveal details about particular candidates.

But he said "a really great group of people" had applied and worked their way through the selection process.

"We have encountered absolutely marvellous individuals," he said.

The process was an excellent "demonstration that disability is not a limitation", he added.

"It's really something that we all believe in," he said, adding that there was a high level of commitment to the project from ESA's partners.

So when could the first astronauts with a disability blast off?

"Space is a not a business for people who are in a hurry," Weerts said.

The timeline is difficult to predict because "it really depends on what we encounter", he said, adding that plenty more work would be carried out once the ESA has selected its candidates.

But he did say that an astronaut with a disability could launch into space "potentially in the next 10 years".


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