By Natalie Rodgers
As the world prepares for the next chapter of space exploration, the European Space Agency (ESA) has introduced 17 new astronauts into their program, including the world’s first astronaut with a disability. Former British Paralympian John McFall has been chosen to be the first “parastronaut” in the history of space travel. His journey to the stars will be part of a feasibility project, looking for the most efficient ways for astronauts with disabilities to be included in space travel.
“I thought, ‘Wow, this is a such a huge, interesting opportunity,’” McFall stated to the ESA. “I thought I would be a very good candidate to help ESA answer the question they were asking, ‘Can we get a person with a physical disability into space?’”
A native of Frimley, Surrey, in England, John McFall is best known for his extensive athletic career as a Paralympian. At 19 years old, McFall was involved in a serious motorcycle crash in Thailand that resulted in the amputation of his right leg above the knee. After being fitted for a prosthetic in 2003, McFall decided to take up his former passion for running and quickly worked his way into becoming a professional athlete. He was selected to represent Great Britain at the International Paralympic Committee European Championships in 2005, where he mainly competed as a 100m and 200m dasher. McFall’s athleticism earned him five bronze medals, three silver medals and five gold medals over four years, with many penning him as one of the fastest men in the world.
In addition to competing in the Paralympics, McFall spent his free time studying sports, exercise and medicine at several universities throughout Wales with the intent of becoming a doctor. After retiring from his running career, McFall became a member of the Royal College of Surgeons, one of the most prestigious surgical institutions in the United Kingdom. He is currently a Trauma and Orthopedic Specialist Registrar, otherwise known as an orthopedic doctor.
In 2021, a friend and consultant of McFall texted him that the ESA was looking to hire its first intake of astronauts in 13 years. The ESA was looking for a Paralympian to join the space program and aid in research for how to accommodate the needs of people with disabilities in space travel. In tandem with his medical degree, McFall noticed that he met all of the desired qualifications and decided to apply. Just shy of two years later, McFall was inducted into the astronaut class of 2022 and at the beginning of his journey to becoming the first astronaut with a physical disability to go to space.
McFall will join 16 other newly recruited astronauts in the next year to complete training before he takes his first journey to space. While he has expressed his excitement to join the ESA and to make strides for the disability communities, McFall is also adamant that this endeavor is not about him:
“I am slightly conscious that I am not representative of the entire disabled population,” McFall stated in an interview with ESPN. “I have a very straightforward, static disability; there are people out there with more complex disabilities. It’s important to recognize that this is a small step in addressing a larger question of inclusivity in all realms of employment of people with disabilities. So, this is not ‘The John Show,’ this is a stepping stone to push the envelope [to] get people talking about disability more because the more people talk about it, the less stigma it has, the more opportunities in life they will have.”
Sources: ESPN, KSL TV, ESA, Wikipedia