British Paralympian becomes world’s first disabled astronaut

John McFall - Francois Mori/AP
John McFall - Francois Mori/AP

A British Paralympian has become the world’s first disabled astronaut.

John McFall, 42, had his right leg amputated when he was 19 after a motorbike accident and has become the first person with a physical disability to be selected for astronaut training by the European Space Agency (ESA).

The Briton will now be part of ESA’s “parastronaut feasibility project” to see what aspects of spaceflight need to be adapted in order for people with disabilities to go to space.

Speaking at the Grand Palais Éphémère in Paris, Mr McFall said he hopes to inspire others and prove that “space travel is for everyone”.

Mr McFall won a paralympic bronze medal in the 100 metre T42 category at the 2008 Beijing olympics with a time of 13.08 seconds.

He also has been world champion in the 200 metre discipline and in his post-athletic life trained as a doctor and is now a trauma and orthopaedics registrar.

‘Space travel is for everyone’

The ESA first announced it would be looking for astronauts with disabilities in early 2021 and Mr McFall said he thought at the time that he would be “a very good candidate”.

“I always wanted to join the Army and that was what my life was tailored around - I came from a military family,” he said.

After losing his leg he taught himself to run again with a prosthetic, went to Swansea University and then did a master’s degree at the University of Wales Institute in Cardiff.

He is now working to be a consultant doctor alongside his astronaut training and said he was “very excited and proud” to be an astronaut.

“The message I would give to future generations is that science is for everyone and space travel, hopefully, is for everyone,” he said.

Mr McFall will now work with ESA to try and make it possible for people of short stature, people with missing limbs and other physical disabilities to go to space.

It remains unknown if Mr McFall will ever go to space but ESA has said it “can commit to trying as hard and seriously as we can”.

“If there is one thing we have learned by working on the International Space Station (ISS), it is that there is great value in diversity,” ESA said last year.

“Including people with special needs also means benefiting from their extraordinary experience, ability to adapt to difficult environments, and point of view.”

British astronomer to join project

Also joining the class of 2022 as one of ESA’s five new career astronauts is Dr Rosemary Coogan, a British astronomer.

Dr Coogan, from Northern Ireland, was born in 1991 and has a physics degree, a masters in astronomy and a PhD in astrophysics.

Space has always fascinated me,” she said. “I think it is really important to understand where we come from, the conditions of life and how the human body reacts when those conditions change.

“So I am really excited to do that by going to space, hopefully inspiring other people to do the same and contributing to ESA’s goals.”

As a career astronaut, Dr Coogan will have a chance to become one of the first people to return to the moon.

“In terms of going to the moon, it really excites me because I feel as though it is almost stepping back in time to be on this rocky body that represents how the Solar System was formed and how we can learn from ourselves,” she said.

“That is really one of the things I am most looking forward to.”

Thousands apply to join programme

Meganne Christian is the other Briton unveiled on Wednesday and will be a member of the ESA astronaut reserve.

Meganne Christian (left) and Rosemary Coogan (right) join John McFall on the ESA programme - Francois Mori/AP
Meganne Christian (left) and Rosemary Coogan (right) join John McFall on the ESA programme - Francois Mori/AP

Dr Christian has a PhD in industrial chemistry, spent two years working as a scientist in Antarctica and speaks four languages.

More than 22,500 people applied to join the programme, with the largest number coming from France (7,087), followed by Germany (3,695), and the UK (2,000). There were 257 applications to ESA for the parastronaut scheme.

Following a comprehensive screening phase, 1,361 people were invited to phase two of ESA’s astronaut selection, which was narrowed down to just over 400 applicants during phase three.

On Wednesday, ESA revealed 17 new astronauts in total, five career astronauts, 11 reserves and Mr McFall as the first ever parastronaut.

The UK’s three astronauts was the most of any single nation, with Germany, France and Spain having two with representatives also coming from Belgium, Austria, Switzerland, Czech Republic, Poland and Sweden.

“This ESA astronaut class is bringing ambition, talent and diversity in many different forms – to drive our endeavours, and our future,” said Josef Aschbacher, the director general of the ESA .

“The continuous exploration in low Earth orbit on the International Space Station, going forward to the Moon – and beyond.”

ESA’s director of Human and Robotic Exploration, David Parker, added “We are delighted to have this group of extremely talented people, to continue European science and operations on the International Space Station and beyond.”