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Seeing a future for astronauts with disabilities on a zero-gravity airplane flight


A photo provided by Zero Gravity Corporation of the late physicist Stephen Hawking, who suffered progressive paralyzation from early-onset amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), during a zero-gravity parabolic flight in 2007.

By Amanda Morris


Eric Ingram typically moves through the world on 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 blocked him from his dream of becoming an astronaut. He applied and was rejected, twice.


But onboard a special airplane flight last 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 on Oct. 17 in an experiment testing how people with disabilities fare in a zero-gravity environment. Parabolic flights, which fly within Earth’s atmosphere in alternating upward and downward arcs, allow passengers to experience zero gravity 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 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 U.S. agency initially selected only white, physically fit men to be astronauts and even when the agency broadened its criteria, it still chose only people who 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 the 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,” 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. Rosenstein, 27, has been paralyzed from the waist down since an injury in middle school.


Barred from space itself, Rosenstein became a journalist who often reports on space, including for a podcast, Talking Space.


During the AstroAccess flight, 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,” 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 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’ mission and communications director, said the dozen participants in the flight had a roughly 90% 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 July, and safely get into their seats in the limited time before reentry. This is typical training for suborbital flights, but not for orbital flights, which don’t have the same time crunch before reentry.


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.”


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 plane 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 extendible cane.

“What was surprising to me is at some points, I knew exactly where I was and how I was facing,” she said.


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 the Oct. 17 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 spokesperson for NASA, said the U.S. agency is not currently considering changing its selection criteria.


Blue Origin, the company owned by 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, Varia recalls he watched a space shuttle launch on TV. The channel didn’t have closed captions, so 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, 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.


Varia went on to earn engineering degrees and has worked for NASA for two decades to direct space missions and help design propulsion systems for satellites.


On the Oct. 17 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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