Health

A future for people with disabilities in space is picking up speed

Eric Ingram usually moves around the world in his wheelchair. The 31-year-old CEO of SCOUT Inc., a smart satellite components company, was born with Freeman-Sheldon syndrome, a rare condition that affects his joints and prevented him from becoming an astronaut. He applied and was rejected twice.

But on board a special airplane flight this week, he turned effortlessly through the air and touched nothing. He found that in the simulated zero gravity environment where he needed so few tools, it was easier to get around.

While simulating the lunar gravity in flight – which is about one sixth of the Earth's gravity – he discovered something even more surprising: for the first time in his life he was able to stand up.

"It was rightly strange," he said. "Just standing was probably almost as foreign to me as floating in weightlessness."

He was one of 12 disabled passengers who swam through the air aboard a parabolic flight in Southern California last Sunday to test how people with disabilities are doing in a weightless environment. Parabolic flights, which fly in alternating arcs in the earth's atmosphere, allow passengers to be weightless on the upward-pointing arcs for repeated short eruptions and are a regular part of the training of astronauts.

The flight was organized by AstroAccess, a non-profit initiative that aims to make space travel accessible to all. Although there have been around 600 people in space since the beginning of manned space travel in the 1960s, NASA and other space agencies have long restricted the astronaut profession to a tiny fraction of humanity. The American agency initially selected only white, physically fit men as astronauts, and even as the agency expanded its criteria, it still only selected people who met certain physical requirements.

This blocked the path to space for many people with disabilities, and overlooked the arguments that disabled people could, in some cases, be excellent astronauts.

But the rise of private space travel, funded by billionaires with support from government space agencies, is creating the opportunity to enable a much larger and more diverse pool of people to travel to the edge of space and beyond. And people with disabilities want to be included.

The participants in the AstroAccess flight on Sunday argue that accessibility issues need to be considered now – with the advent of private space travel – and not later, as retrofitting devices to accessibility would cost more time and money.

The Federal Aviation Administration is prohibited from issuing safety regulations for private space travel until October 2023. Initiatives like AstroAccess are designed to shape the way government agencies think about space accessibility.

"It is vital that we anticipate this regulatory process and prevent misinformation or missing information or data from creating bad regulations that would prevent someone with disabilities from flying on one of these trips," said Mr. Ingram.

The group also hopes that providing everything from the start could lead to new space innovations that are useful for everyone, regardless of disability.

For example, Sawyer Rosenstein, another AstroAccess passenger, is quick to point out that the light metal alloys used in his wheelchair are a by-product of NASA innovations. Mr. Rosenstein, 27, has been paralyzed from the waist down since an injury in middle school.

Excluded from space itself, Mr. Rosenstein became a journalist who often covered space, including for the Talking Space podcast.

With the flight on Sunday. 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," said Mr. Rosenstein. "It's almost indescribable to have that freedom after you've taken it away for so long."

He also found that he was more flexible in weightlessness, where he could finally test his full range of motion. And the chronic pain that he normally feels all over his body disappeared during the flight, he said. Like Mr. Ingram, he was able to get up on his own. Both suggested that their experiences suggest that weightlessness or reduced gravity might have potential therapeutic uses.

With just a few modifications for each type of disability, Ann Kapusta, director of missions and communications for AstroAccess, said the dozen participants on the flight had a success rate of about 90 percent getting back to their seats after 15 tests – 12 in weightlessness, two of them mimicked the gravity of the moon and one that mimicked the gravity of Mars.

AstroAccess conducted these tests, each lasting 20-30 seconds, to ensure that people with disabilities can take a suborbital flight like Jeff Bezos' in July and get safely into their seats in the limited time before reboarding. This is typical training for suborbital flights, but not for orbital flights where there is not the same time pressure before reboarding.

The relative ease of flight surprised some on the team, including Tim Bailey, executive director of Yuris Night, a nonprofit focused on space education that sponsors AstroAccess. Initially, he said he was concerned that people with disabilities were more vulnerable and would need additional medical precautions.

“My biggest takeaway from this is that my initial reaction, 'Oh my god, this is going to be hard,' was wrong,” he said. "You didn't need a lot of extra stuff."

Moving on the plane wasn't without its challenges, however, said Centra Mazyck, 45, who was injured and 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 diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or A.L.S. But unlike Dr. Hawking's flight was designed to explore the ability of disabled people to function independently in space and to develop tools that they can use to do so.

In addition to modified spacesuits for passengers with reduced mobility, the researchers tested special lighting systems for deaf passengers as well as Braille and navigation devices for blind passengers.

To navigate the plane as a blind person, Mona Minkara, 33, tested an ultrasound device and a haptic or vibrating device, both of which gave her signals when she approached the walls of the plane and other objects. But the most helpful device, she said, is the simplest: an extendable walking stick.

“What surprised me is that in some places I knew exactly where I was and how I was standing in front of me,” she said.

Dr. Minkara, a bio-engineer at Northeastern University in Boston, pointed out that making spacecraft navigable for the blind would also help protect other astronauts if the lights go out during a spacecraft emergency.

Some on Sunday's flight once dreamed of becoming professional astronauts and hope that this research could open the door for other disabled people to get the job.

The European Space Agency announced earlier this year that it will accept astronaut applications from people with leg amputations or particularly small people and hopes to expand to other types of disabilities in the future. Courtney Beasley, a NASA spokeswoman, said the American agency was not currently considering changing its selection criteria.

The rules of some private space companies are more lenient than those of government agencies. Although SpaceX did not respond to requests for comment, Hayley Arceneaux became the first person with a prosthesis to travel to orbit aboard the company's Crew Dragon capsule during the Inspiration4 flight in September.

Axiom Space, which books flights to the International Space Station [ISS] on the SpaceX vehicle, and Virgin Galactic, which flies a suborbital spaceplane, don't have a list of astronaut exclusion conditions and say they are considering accommodations on a case-by-case basis.

Dr. Tarah Castleberry, Virgin Galactic's chief medical officer, said the company will conduct medical exams for every astronaut to ensure safety and is currently considering flying people with prosthetic limbs, hearing impairments, paralysis and other medical conditions and physical disabilities.

Blue Origin, the company owned by Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, said in a statement that passengers must meet their own list of functional requirements that can prevent blind, deaf or mobility impaired people from flying.

Apurva Varia, 48, is deaf and one of those people who would continue to be excluded from such rules.

“Space agencies have told us we can't go into space, but why? Show me evidence, ”he said.

In ninth grade, Mr. Varia remembers seeing a space shuttle launch on television. The channel had no subtitles, so Mr. Varia didn't understand what the shuttle was or why people in orange suits were sitting inside. When the countdown reached zero, he said he was amazed when it shot into the sky and disappeared.

Shortly afterwards, Mr. Varia wrote a letter to NASA asking if he could apply to be an astronaut. He received a response stating that NASA was unable to accept deaf astronauts at the time.

Mr. Varia subsequently earned advanced engineering degrees and worked for NASA for two decades directing space missions and helping develop propulsion systems for satellites.

On the Sunday flight he got a little closer to his dream. When he tried to sign in American sign language, he bumped into walls and ceilings and tried to drink a large, floating bubble of water that splashed on his face.

“That wasn't an everyday experience,” he said. "I hope to go into space one day."

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