Seeing a Future for Astronauts With Disabilities on a Zero-Gravity Airplane Flight
Eric Ingram typically moves through the world on his wheelchair. The 31-year-old chief executive of SCOUT Inc., a smart satellite components company, was born with Freeman-Sheldon Syndrome, a rare condition that affects his joints and blocked him from his dream of becoming an astronaut. He applied and was rejected, twice.
But onboard a special airplane flight this week, he spun effortlessly through the air, touching nothing. Moving around, he found, was easier in the simulated zero-gravity environment where he needed so few tools to help.
While simulating lunar gravity on the flight — which is about one-sixth of Earth’s — he discovered something even more surprising: for the first time in his life, he could stand up.
“It was legitimately weird,” he said. “Just the act of standing was probably almost as alien 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 fare in a zero-gravity environment. Parabolic flights, which fly within Earth’s atmosphere in alternating arcs, allow passengers to experience zero gravity on the upward arcs for repeated short bursts, and are a regular part of training for astronauts.
The flight was organized by AstroAccess, a nonprofit initiative that aims to make spaceflight accessible to to all. Although about 600 people have been to space since the beginning of human spaceflight in the 1960s, NASA and other space agencies have long restricted the job of astronaut to a minuscule slice of humanity. The American agency initially only selected white, physically fit men to be astronauts and even when the agency broadened its criteria, it still only chose people that met certain physical requirements.
This blocked the path to space for many with disabilities, overlooking arguments that disabled people could make excellent astronauts in some cases.
But the rise of private spaceflight, funded by billionaires with the support of government space agencies, is creating the possibility of allowing a much wider and more diverse pool of people to make trips to the edge of space and beyond. And those with disabilities are aiming to be included.
The participants in Sunday’s AstroAccess flight argue that accessibility issues must be considered now — at the advent of private space travel — rather than later, because retrofitting equipment to be accessible would take more time and money.
The Federal Aviation Administration is prohibited from creating safety regulations for private spaceflights until October 2023. Initiatives like AstroAccess are aiming to guide the way that government agencies think about accessibility on spaceflights.
“It’s crucial that we’re able to get out ahead of that regulatory process and prevent misinformation or lack of information or lack of data from making bad regulation that would prevent someone with disability flying on one of these trips,” Mr. Ingram said.
The group also hopes that making everything accessible from the get-go could lead to new space innovations that are helpful for everyone, regardless of disability.
For example, Sawyer Rosenstein, another AstroAccess passenger, is quick to point out how the lightweight metal alloys used in his wheelchair are a byproduct of NASA innovations. Mr. Rosenstein, 27, has been paralyzed from the waist down since an injury in middle school.
Barred from space itself, Mr. Rosenstein became a journalist who often reports on space, including for a podcast, Talking Space.
During Sunday’s 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 that freedom after having it taken away 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 experiences throughout his body disappeared during the flight, he said. Like Mr. Ingram, he also could stand up on his own. They both suggested that their experiences signal that zero gravity or reduced gravity could have potential therapeutic applications.
With just a few modifications for each type of disability, Ann Kapusta, AstroAccess’s mission and communications director, said the dozen participants in the flight had a roughly 90 percent success rate getting back to their seats after 15 tests — 12 in zero gravity, two that mimicked lunar gravity and one that mimicked Martian gravity.
AstroAccess conducted these tests — each lasting 20 to 30 seconds — to ensure that people with disabilities can go on a suborbital flight, like the one Jeff Bezos took in October, and safely get into their seats in the limited time before re-entry. This is typical training for suborbital flights, but not for orbital flights, which don’t have the same time crunch before re-entry.
The relative ease of the flight surprised some on the team, including Tim Bailey, the executive director of Yuri’s Night, a nonprofit organization focused on space education that sponsors AstroAccess. At first, he said he was concerned that people with disabilities were more fragile and would require extra medical precautions.
“My biggest takeaway from this is my initial reaction of, ‘Oh my goodness, this is going to be hard,’ was wrong,” he said. “They didn’t need a lot of extra stuff.”
But moving around the plane was not without some challenges, said Centra Mazyck, 45, who was injured and became partially paralyzed while serving as a member of the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division.
“It’s very hard 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 one in 2007 with Stephen Hawking, the physicist, who had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or A.L.S. But unlike Dr. Hawking’s flight, this one was geared toward researching the ability of disabled people to function independently in space and developing tools they could use to do so.
In addition to modified spacesuits for mobility impaired passengers, researchers tested special lighting systems for deaf passengers and Braille and navigational devices for blind passengers.
To navigate the shuttle as a blind person, Mona Minkara, 33, tested an ultrasonic device and a haptic, or vibrating, device, both of which signaled her as she approached the plane’s walls and other objects. But the most helpful device, she said, was the simplest: an extendable cane.
“What was surprising to me is at some points, I knew exactly where I was and how I was facing,” 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 spacecraft emergency.
Some on Sunday’s flight once dreamed of becoming professional astronauts, and hope this research could open the door for other disabled people to get the job.
The European Space Agency announced this year that it is accepting astronaut applications from those with leg amputations or who are especially short, and hopes to expand to include more types of disabilities in the future. Courtney Beasley, a spokeswoman for NASA, said the American agency is not currently considering changing its selection criteria.
Some private space companies’ rules are more forgiving than those of government agencies. Although SpaceX did not respond to requests for comment, Hayley Arceneaux became the first person with a prosthetic to travel to orbit in September during the Inspiration4 flight aboard the company’s Crew Dragon capsule.
Axiom Space, which is booking flights on SpaceX’s vehicle to the International Space Station, and Virgin Galactic, which flies a suborbital space plane, do not have a list of disqualifying conditions for astronauts, and say they consider accommodations on a case-by-case basis.
Dr. Tarah Castleberry, the chief medical officer of Virgin Galactic, said the company will conduct medical screenings for each astronaut to ensure safety and is currently considering flying people who have prosthetics, 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 blind, deaf or mobility-impaired individuals from flying.
Apurva Varia, 48, is deaf and one of the people who would continue to be excluded by such rules.
“Space organizations told us that we can’t go to space, but why? Show me proof,” he said.
In ninth grade, Mr. Varia recalls watching a space shuttle launch on TV. The channel didn’t have closed captions, so Mr. Varia didn’t understand what the shuttle was, or why people were sitting inside wearing orange suits. When the countdown hit zero, he said he was amazed to see it blast into the sky and disappear.
Soon afterward, Mr. Varia wrote a letter to NASA asking if he could apply to be an astronaut. He got a reply saying that NASA couldn’t accept deaf astronauts at the time.
Mr. Varia went on to earn advanced engineering degrees and has worked for NASA for two decades to direct space missions and help design propulsion systems for satellites.
On Sunday’s flight, he got a little closer to his dream. He found himself bumping into the walls and ceilings as he tried to sign in American Sign Language and attempted drinking a big, floating bubble of water, which splashed on his face.
“It was an out-of-this-world experience,” he said. “I hope to go to space someday.”
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