He’s a Paralympian, a Surgeon and Now the First Disabled Astronaut
LONDON — John McFall is no stranger to a challenge. An avid sprinter in his youth, he had to learn how to run again after losing his leg in a motorcycle accident when he was 19.
He learned well: In the Paralympic Games in Beijing in 2008, he won the bronze medal in the 100 meters. Not content with that, he then trained as an orthopedic surgeon.
Mr. McFall has now his sights set even higher — much, much higher.
On Wednesday, the European Space Agency named Mr. McFall as one of its newest recruits, making him the world’s first physically disabled astronaut, the agency said.
He joins 16 other new faces from across Europe, chosen from about 22,500 applicants as the agency looked to diversify its pool of astronauts in its first hiring drive in more than a decade.
“I can bring inspiration,” Mr. McFall, 41, said at the cohort’s unveiling on Wednesday. “Inspiration that science is for everyone,” he added, and that, “potentially, space is for everyone.”
Tim Peake, who became the European Space Agency’s first British astronaut in 2008, said that Mr. McFall’s recruitment was “absolutely groundbreaking.”
“He’s really going to be pushing the boundaries,” Mr. Peake said. “He’s very much paving the way for astronauts with future disabilities to do so as well.”
Along with Mr. McFall’s selection, the efforts to broaden the profile of recruits bore some other fruit: Last time round, in 2008, the agency selected just one woman, Samantha Cristoforetti of Italy, to join the program. The other five chosen were men. This year, eight of the 17 successful applicants were women.
But the agency acknowledged that the lack of ethnically diverse candidates was disappointing.
David Parker, the director of human and robotic exploration at the European Space Agency, cited the problem in comments to the BBC.
“We have to think about that and reflect on why it happened,” he said.
The recruits will soon begin a 12-month basic training program at the European Astronaut Centre in Germany.
In an interview released by the European Space Agency, Mr. McFall said that his selection had been “quite a whirlwind experience.”
“As an amputee,” he said, “I never thought that being an astronaut was a possibility.”
It may be some time until Mr. McFall is launched into orbit, however.
He will soon undertake a “feasibility project” to assess how physical disability might affect space travel and how any problems could be overcome. Once that study gives him the all-clear, he would be eligible to join any space missions.
“We’ve got to undergo astronaut training and work out what it is about having a physical disability that makes it tricky and overcome those hurdles, so it adds an additional layer of complexity,” Mr. McFall said in the agency interview.
A father of three, he joked in the agency interview that he had been looking for a career change.
“I realized I couldn’t be an athlete for my whole life, I probably needed to get a proper job,” he said.
The European Space Agency, which is headquartered in Paris, was established in 1975 and has a staff of around 2,200 — though only a select few are astronauts. The body is funded by tax contributions from each of the 22 member states.
Although the European Space Agency’s $6.75 billion budget last year was significantly smaller than NASA’s $23.3 billion allocation for the same period, the organization has made leaps in recent times, including developing the European Service Module — the unit that is helping to power NASA’s Orion capsule around the moon.
“This is an extraordinary time for human spaceflight and for Europe,” David Parker, the European Space Agency’s director of human and robotic exploration, said in a statement on Wednesday.
“We are on the forefront of human space exploration,” he added.