Eric Ingram usually moves across the world in his wheelchair. The CEO of SCOUT Inc. The 31-year-old has Freeman-Sheldon Syndrome, a rare condition that affects his joints and prevents him from dreaming of becoming an astronaut. He applied and was rejected twice.
But on a private jet flight this week, he circled through the air effortlessly and touched nothing. He found that moving was easier in a simulated zero-gravity environment where he needed very few tools to help.
Simulating the lunar gravity on board the flight – which is one sixth of Earth’s – he discovered something even more surprising: for the first time in his life, he could stand.
“It was legitimately weird,” he said. “Just doing standing was probably as strange to me as floating in zero gravity.”
He was one of 12 disabled passengers who swam through the air on a parabolic flight in Southern California last Sunday in an experiment that tests how people with disabilities cope in a zero-gravity environment. Parabolic flights, which fly within Earth’s atmosphere in alternating arcs, allow passengers to experience zero gravity on the ascending arcs for short, repeated bursts, and are a regular part of astronaut training.
The flight was organized by AstroAccess, a non-profit initiative that aims to make spaceflight more accessible to all. Although about 600 people have gone into space since the beginning of human spaceflight in the 1960s, NASA and other space agencies have long limited the astronaut’s mission to a small slice of humanity. Initially, the US agency chose only white men of physical fitness to be astronauts, and even as the agency expanded its criteria, it still only selected people who met certain physical requirements.
This closed the path to space for many people with disabilities, Ignore the arguments That disabled people can be excellent astronauts in some cases.
but up private space flightsFunded by billionaires with the support of government space agencies, it creates the potential to allow a much wider and more diverse group of people to take trips to the edge of space and beyond. Persons with disabilities are intended to be included.
Participants in Sunday’s AstroAccess flight argue that accessibility issues should be taken into account now – when private spaceflights emerge – rather than later, because it will take more time and money to modify accessible equipment.
The Federal Aviation Administration is forbidden From setting safety regulations for private spaceflight through October 2023. Initiatives like AstroAccess aim to guide the way government agencies think about accessibility in spaceflight.
“It is critical to be able to move forward with this regulatory process and prevent misinformation, lack of information or lack of data from setting up bad regulations that prevent a person with a disability from traveling on one of these flights,” Mr. Ingram said.
The group also hopes that making everything accessible from the start can lead to new space innovations that will benefit everyone, regardless of disability.
For example, Sawyer Rosenstein, another AstroAccess passenger, was quick to point out that the lightweight metal alloys used in his wheelchair are a byproduct of NASA innovations. Mr. Rosenstein, 27, has been paralyzed from the waist down since his injury in middle school.
Banned from space itself, Mr. Rosenstein became a journalist who often reported on space, including for Podcast, Talking Space.
during the Sunday flight. Mr. Rosenstein was wearing 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,” Mr. Rosenstein said. “It is almost indescribable to have such freedom after taking it away for so long. “
He also found that it was more resilient in zero gravity, as it was finally able to test its full range of motion. He said the chronic pain he usually suffers all over his body disappeared during the flight. Like Mr. Ingram, he can also stand alone. Both suggested that their experience indicates that zero gravity or low gravity could have potential therapeutic applications.
With only a few adjustments for each type of disability, Anne Kapusta, director of communications and mission for AstroAccess, said dozens of flight participants had a nearly 90 percent success rate in returning to their seats after 15 tests — 12 in zero gravity, and two from That simulates lunar gravity and gravity simulates Mars’ gravity.
AstroAccess ran these tests – each lasting 20-30 seconds – to make sure people with disabilities could go on a sub-tropical flight, like the one Jeff Bezos did in October, and get to their seats safely in the limited time before returning. This is typical training for sub-orbital flights, but not for orbital flights, which do not experience the same time crunch before re-entry.
The relative ease of the flight surprised some on the team, including Tim Bailey, CEO of Yuri’s Night, a nonprofit focused on space education and sponsor of AstroAccess. At first, he said he was concerned that people with disabilities were more fragile and would need additional medical precautions.
“The biggest take away from this was my initial reaction, ‘Oh my God, this is going to be hard,’ he said, ‘was wrong.’ They didn’t need a lot of extra stuff.”
Sentra Mazek, 45, who was partially paralyzed while serving as a member of the US Army’s 82nd Airborne Division, said navigating the plane was not without some challenges.
“It’s very difficult because as if you are floating, you are as light as a feather,” she said. “You don’t know your strengths or your weaknesses.”
Sunday’s parabola-shaped ride reminded us of one in 2007 With Stephen Hawking, the physicist, who had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS but unlike Dr. Hawking’s journey, this trip was geared toward researching the ability of people with disabilities to function independently in space and developing tools they could use to do so.
In addition to modified spacesuits for passengers with a mobility impairment, the 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 ultrasound and a haptic or vibrating device, both of which signaled her as she approached plane walls and other objects. But she said the most useful tool is the simplest: an extendable wand.
“What was surprising to me was that at times, I knew exactly where I was and how I was facing,” she said.
Dr. Minkara, a bioengineer at Northeastern University in Boston, noted that making the spacecraft navigable for the blind would also help keep other astronauts safe if the lights went out during a spacecraft emergency.
Some on Sunday’s flight once dreamed of becoming professional astronauts, and they hope this research will open the door for other disabled people to get the job.
European Space Agency announce This year it is accepting applications from astronauts who have had their legs amputated or who are particularly short, and hopes to expand to include more types of disabilities in the future. Courtney Beasley, a spokeswoman for NASA, said the US agency is not currently considering changing its selection criteria.
Some rules for private space companies are more forgiving than those of government agencies. Although SpaceX has not responded to requests for comment, Hayley Arceneaux has become First person with a prosthetic to travel into orbit In September during the Inspiration4 flight aboard the company’s Crew Dragon capsule.
Axiom Space, which books SpaceX flights to the International Space Station, and Virgin Galactic, which flies on a suborbital space plane, do not have a list of astronauts’ disqualifications, and say they are considering case-by-case accommodations. Basis.
Dr. Tara Castleberry, Virgin Galactic’s chief medical officer, said the company will conduct medical checks on every astronaut to ensure safety and is currently considering transporting people with prosthetics, hearing impairment, paralysis and other medical conditions and physical disabilities.
Blue Origin, the company owned by Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, said in a statement that passengers must meet List of job requirements which may exclude blind, deaf or motor-impaired persons from flying.
Apurva Varia, 48, is deaf and one of the people who will continue to be disqualified under these rules.
“Space organizations told us we can’t go into space, but why? Show me proof,” he said.
In the ninth grade, Mr. Faria remembers watching the launch of a space shuttle on television. The canal had no closed captions, so Mr. Faria did not understand what a shuttle was, or why people were sitting inside in orange suits. When the countdown reached zero, he said he was astonished to see it explode into the sky and disappear.
Shortly thereafter, Mr. Faria wrote a letter to NASA asking if he could apply to become an astronaut. He got a response saying that NASA could not accept deaf astronauts at the time.
Mr. Faria holds advanced degrees in engineering and has been at NASA for two decades direct space missions and assistance in designing propulsion systems for satellites.
On Sunday’s ride, he got a little closer to his dream. He found himself bumping into walls and ceilings while trying to sign in American Sign Language and trying to drink a large, floating bubble of water, splashed across his face.
“It was an out of this world experience,” he said. “I hope to go to space one day.”