Astronomy: John McFall, the parastronaut who is training to become the first disabled person to go into space.

Astronomy: John McFall, the parastronaut who is training to become the first disabled person to go into space.
Astronomy: John McFall, the parastronaut who is training to become the first disabled person to go into space.
Image caption, To train, astronauts must spin in a giant centrifuge.
Article information
  • Author, Rebecca Morelle and Alison Francis
  • Role, BBC News Science
  • 16 minutes ago

Former British Paralympic athlete John McFall is collaborating with the European Space Agency on a groundbreaking study to determine whether it is possible for someone with a physical disability to live and work in space. The BBC has been following his progress as he undergoes astronaut training.

This is a test that every aspiring astronaut must pass. But it’s not for the fearful or the claustrophobic.

With a metallic crash, the door closes, enclosing John McFall in the darkness of a metal box the size of a coffin.

It’s in a giant centrifuge, which spins repeatedly to replicate the extreme gravitational forces of rocket launch and the even more extreme G-forces of descent.

“The faster the centrifuge spins, the higher the G load,” explains John.

“Today we will reach about 6 G, or six times the force of gravity. This reproduces what would happen during re-entry into the atmosphere aboard a Soyuz capsule.”

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Image caption, The machine replicates the extreme gravity that astronauts would feel during takeoff and reentry into the atmosphere.

This test is part of John’s training program with the European Space Agency (ESA).

In 2022, he was selected as their first physically disabled astronaut candidate, to work on a groundbreaking study to determine if he can go to space safely.

John is an amputee. He lost the lower part of his right leg in a motorcycle accident when he was 19.

He usually wears a high-tech prosthesis. But he removed it to test the effects of the centrifuge on his upper leg.

ESA flight surgeon Maybritt Kuypers watches over him.

“This is the first time we have had an amputee in the centrifuge,” he explains.

“The astronaut lies on his back in a seated position, which affects blood circulation, including in the leg. We were curious to see how this would affect him, but everything went very well.”

Photo credit, BBC/Tony Jolliffe

Image caption, John uses a special prosthesis to run.

John interrupted his career as an orthopedic surgeon to take a leap into the unknown by training to be an astronaut.

He left the UK to join the European Astronaut Center in Cologne, Germany.

It is not guaranteed to be able to carry out a space flight, but this study will examine what must be adapted to make this flight possible: the spacecraft, the spacesuits or its various prosthetic legs.

Today he is evaluating his sports prosthesis.

Photo credit, Getty Images

Image caption, John McFall won bronze at the 2008 Paralympic Games in China.

Sport plays a big part in his life: John is a former medal-winning Paralympic sprinter. And staying fit in space is essential for maintaining muscle mass and bone density.

John uses a special anti-gravity treadmill that recreates the weightless conditions of the International Space Station (ISS). A cushion of air lifts it slightly, making it artificially lighter.

He explains that his body weight pushes his prosthesis toward the ground, compressing it so that it bounces and gives him a natural push to propel him forward.

But the treadmill makes him about 80 percent lighter, so his prosthesis doesn’t work as well.

“I notice that the prosthesis is too rigid,” he explains. “It’s because I’m lighter and I exert less force on it, it bends less and therefore gives me less elasticity.

He thinks he needs a more flexible prosthesis, but that’s not all.

Photo credit, ESA/Novespace

Image caption, A parabolic flight allowed John to see how his prosthetic leg would work.

During a parabolic flight last year, during which John experienced weightlessness for the first time, he discovered that his high-tech microprocessor-powered prosthetic leg intended for everyday use needed to be recalibrated.

In fact, John thinks he might need several prosthetic legs on the ISS.

“There would be a racing prosthesis, a replacement prosthesis for the microprocessor prosthesis and there is also the mechanics, which will probably have to be carried inside the spacesuit for launch and return,” he explains. -he.

“I will need a wardrobe for prosthetic equipment.

ESA is the first space agency to undertake such a project.

Until now, John’s disability would have prevented him from becoming an astronaut. But Frank De Winne, director of the European Astronaut Center, wants to change that.

“We think this is a great opportunity because we have a lot of fantastic talent among people with disabilities, like John,” he says.

Photo credit, McFall family

Image caption, John’s family moved to Germany for studies.

“Why don’t we try to use this talent for big missions, like astronauts?”

The move to Germany represents a big change for his wife, Sonia, a former Olympic gymnast, and their three young children, Fin, Isla and Immy.

Around the table, they talk about their father’s new job. His friends think he’s “cool”. Fin can’t believe his father gave up his profession as a doctor for a job that could send him “into the great black void” of space.

Sonia believes that John’s new career suits him perfectly.

“In our family, it’s very important to seize every opportunity,” she says. “And for me, it’s an opportunity that he took. I hope he gets rewarded for it, which is that he goes to space and shows people that it’s possible .

Back in the juicer, it stops and the door opens with a loud thud. John gives a thumbs up.

“It was fantastic,” he says, smiling.

“And you know what? I didn’t really notice my right leg during the whole process. It was probably the most comfortable part for me during the whole procedure. And that’s really good to know for this study on flights”.

John is about halfway through the project, and so far he hasn’t encountered any obstacles that would hinder his mission.

And each test in space confirms to him that he made the right decision, because it could change people’s perceptions.

“I like to think it will broaden their horizons and their understanding of what a physically disabled person is capable of doing,” he says.

“But I also hope that they see me as just John. Because I’m just John and I want to be an astronaut and I happen to have a physical disability. That’s the message we’re trying to to pass on.”

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