Why We Need Astronauts With Disabilities

Why We Need Astronauts With Disabilities
Illustration: Vicky Leta

This week, Baton Rouge native Hayley Arceneaux, 29, is poised to become the youngest American ever to go to space. Also a first is that Arceneaux is headed to orbit after having survived cancer at age 10 — she’ll be the first person in space with a prosthetic, as her cancer treatment required bones in her left leg to be replaced with rods. Hopefully, she won’t be the last, as both government and private space missions begin to seek out astronauts with differing abilities.

Sci-fi literature and cinema have long used the trope of starting new colonies on another planet, and the disabled are always left behind while the healthy and those perceived as more capable go off to explore and have adventures. In sci-fi, the absence of the disabled is often accepted as fact — that’s how deep-routed ableism is. But now that trope of space colonies without the disabled is about to be no more, so writers are going to have to reimagine the stories they tell and the worlds they create.

One of the arguments for not having the disabled depicted in space is that “artificial intelligence will remedy every medical issue in the future.” What’s flummoxing about this argument is that if humanity goes to another planet, we are destined to find new environments, new challenges, and new diseases, and the building of a new colony will likely result in at least some temporary and permanent injuries. Unforeseen catastrophes will be around every corner. Instead of denying the disabled a place in, let us look at the advantages they may have and what they can teach everyone.

In February, the European Space Agency sought more diverse astronauts, including the disabled. They recently announced that there were a record 22,000 applicants for four to six seats and 20 reserve positions; 200 of them were disabled. A government-run space flight with a disabled astronaut would be the first of its kind. The ESA, through its parastronaut feasibility project, hopes to find what kind of accommodations need to be made for the disabled to travel into space. Although the ESA should be lauded for its ground-breaking initiative, there are still exclusionary requirements to become an astronaut with a disability: The mission is currently seeking only “persons who have a lower limb deficiency (e.g. due to amputation or congenital limb deficiency)”; “persons who have a leg length difference (shortened limbs at birth or as a result of trauma)”; and “persons of short stature (That disabled people might offer unique benefits to the field of human space travel is not a new idea. The Gallaudet 11 were 11 deaf students from Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C. NASA studied them in the 1960s to prepare astronauts for space travel. Like others in the program, the Gallaudet 11 had cold streams of water blown in their ears, sat in the capsule of a Human Disorientation Device, and experienced weightlessness in parabolic flights. These tests were done to study the vestibular system, and, as NASA Head of Crew and Safety John Allen coined, the Gallaudet 11 were found to be “vestibularly enhanced.” They did not experience motion sickness, while their able-bodied counterparts had more difficulty. In 1990, heralded astronaut John Glenn even told one of the Gallaudet 11 that he was envious of them for this reason.

Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, who spent more than five months in orbit during his career, once went blind during a spacewalk. He didn’t panic, though, because NASA trains its astronauts to handle scenarios with incapacitated crew members. So he was thankful his fellow astronaut was nearby. If disabled astronauts could assist a mission in some fashion, it would seem NASA is more than prepared for them when the time comes.

In her article for Scientific American, Dr. Cheri Wells-Jensen points to a fire aboard the Mir Space Station as an example of how it would be beneficial to have a blind crew member on board. While members of that crew had their sight blurred by smoke and trouble getting the fire extinguisher, a blind astronaut would be unfazed as they could already navigate the ship by feel, memory, and sound. If the lights malfunctioned on a ship, the blind would be keenly adept at managing their circadian rhythm and ever-important sleep patterns.

All of these advantages are counter to one of NASA’s big concerns among its astronauts on long-duration missions: vision loss. NASA first noticed the issue in 2005 when astronaut John Phillips’s vision went from 20/20 to 20/100 after six months on the International Space Station. It is believed that cerebrospinal fluid builds up and causes intracranial pressure, giving the eyes a flattened shape that results in the loss. Not having to deal with this “concern” would be another perk of hiring a blind astronaut.

Before his death, esteemed theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking — who had ALS and used an electric wheelchair and voice assistants to speak — experienced zero Gs in a “vomit comet,” just like the Gallaudet 11 did, and he was planning to fly into space aboard Richard Branson’s SpaceshipTwo. But he wasn’t the first wheelchair-user who might have gone to space: Journalist John Hockenberry was a finalist to be an astronaut on a NASA mission, before it was cancelled after the 1986 Challenger explosion. As he quipped in a 1995 piece for the Chicago Reader, “I am way ahead of NASA in the urinary catheter department … I could train the astronauts.” Another fear of astronauts is muscle atrophy — this is why they have to exercise for two hours a day on the ISS — but since Hockenberry does not use his legs, this would be a minor issue. And those with prosthetic limbs would have an upper hand, because their steel would remain robust while the average human limb might become too weak to function and carry out a mission.

Only once society not just understands but truly accepts the positives people with disabilities can bring to the table, will they be able to feel included in the future of humanity. As crewed flight missions are certain to get longer, that means there will be more opportunities for catastrophic mistakes to occur. That is why it is crucial to include the disabled in space travel: We can help safeguard the ships of future missions, and we can offer “the right stuff” that typical astronauts cannot. I can’t think of a better community to further humanity’s ambitions in space than one that already has to adapt to a planet that’s not designed for them.

Chris Reardon is a disability advocate with a Master’s degree in English. He has written for The Verge, The Guardian, Laptop Mag, and PC Mag. He is on Twitter @CR_Reardon.