Eric Ingram usually travels around the world in his wheelchair. The 31-year-old chief executive of SCOUT Inc., a smart satellite component company, was born with Freeman-Sheldon syndrome, a rare condition that affects his joints and prevents him from dreaming of becoming an astronaut. He applied and was twice denied.
But on a special plane flight this week, he effortlessly hovered in the air, not touching anything. Walking around, he found, was easy in a simulated zero-gravity environment where he needed very few tools to help.
While simulating lunar gravity in flight – which is about one-sixth of the Earth – he discovered something even more amazing: for the first time in his life, he could stand.
“It was legally weird,” he said. “The act of just standing was probably as alien to me as floating in zero gravity.”
He was one of 12 disabled passengers who swam across the sky on a parabolic flight in Southern California last Sunday in an experiment to see how disabled people fare in a zero-gravity environment. Parabolic flights, which fly in periodic arcs into the Earth’s atmosphere, allow passengers to feel zero gravity in upward arcs for repeated brief explosions, and are a regular part of astronaut training.
The flight was organized by AstroAccess, a non-profit initiative aimed at making spaceflight accessible to all. Although about 600 people have gone into space since the launch of the human spacecraft in the 1960s, NASA and other space agencies have long limited the work of astronauts to a small part of humanity. The American agency initially chose only white, physically fit men to be astronauts, and even when the agency expanded its criteria, it only selected people who met certain physical requirements.
This blocks the way for many disabled people to go into space, ignoring the arguments that people with disabilities can be great astronauts in some cases.
But the rise of private spaceflight, funded by billionaires with the help of public space agencies, is creating the possibility to allow travel to a much wider and more diverse pool at the edge of space and beyond. And aims to include people with disabilities.
Participants in Sunday’s AstroAccess flight argued that accessibility issues should be considered now – not after the advent of private space travel – because retrofitting equipment would take more time and money to be accessible.
The Federal Aviation Administration has banned the creation of safety regulations for private spaceflight until October 2023. Initiatives such as AstroAccess aim to guide the way government agencies think about accessibility to space flights.
“It’s very important that we are able to come out ahead of that regulatory process and prevent misinformation or lack of information or lack of information from creating bad rules that would prevent a person with a disability from flying on one of these trips,” Mr Ingram said.
The group further hopes that making everything accessible from the get-go can lead to new space innovations that are helpful to everyone, regardless of disability.
For example, Sayer Rosenstein, another AstroAccess passenger, quickly pointed out how the lightweight metals used in his wheelchair are a by-product of NASA inventions. Mr. Rosenstein, 27, has been paralyzed from the waist down since his injury at middle school.
Forbidden from space, Mr. Rosenstein became a journalist who often reported into space, including a podcast, Talking Space.
Sunday flight time. Mr. Rosenstein wore a specially modified flight suit with a strap so he could bend his knees and move his legs.
“I was in control of myself and my whole body,” Mr. Rosenstein said. “It simply came to our notice then“
He also sees that he is more flexible at zero gravity, where he can finally test his full range of motion. And the chronic pain he usually feels all over his body disappears during the flight, he said. Like Mr. Ingram, he could stand on his own. They both suggested that their experiences indicate that zero gravity or reduced gravity may have potential therapeutic applications.
With just a few changes for each type of disability, Ann Capusta, AstroAccess’s director of missions and communications, said that the success rate of dozens of participants on the flight returning to their seats after 15 tests was about 90 percent – 12 zero gravity, two duplicated lunar gravity and one Mimicked the gravity of Mars.
AstroAccess conducted these experiments – lasting 20 to 30 seconds each – to ensure that people with disabilities could board a suborbital flight, as Jeff Bezos did in July, and get back to their seats safely within a limited time before re-entering. This is general training for suborbital flights, but not for orbital flights, which do not have the same time crisis before re-entry.
Relative Ease of Flight Tim Bailey, Executive Director of Uri’s Knight, is a non-profit organization focused on space education that sponsors AstroAccess. At first, he said he was concerned that people with disabilities were more fragile and needed additional treatment precautions.
“My biggest way out of this is my initial reaction,‘ Oh my goodness, it’s going to be tough, ’was wrong,” he said. “They didn’t need a lot of extra things.”
But moving around the plane was not without some challenges, says Centra Magic, 45, who was injured and partially paralyzed while serving as a member of the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division.
“It’s very difficult because it feels like you’re floating, you’re as light as a feather,” he said. “You don’t know your strengths or your weaknesses.”
Sunday’s parabolic flight is reminiscent of a 2007 physicist with Stephen Hawking, who had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, but unlike Dr. Hawking’s flight, it was geared toward research and development of equipment for disabled people to work independently in space. They could use it to do it.
In addition to modified spacesuits for passengers with mobility impairments, researchers have 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 signaling her when approaching aircraft walls and other objects. But the most helpful device, he said, was the simplest: a stretched cane.
“What was amazing to me was that at some point, I knew exactly where I was and how I was coping,” he said.
Dr. Minkara, a biological engineer at Northeastern University in Boston, noted that building a spacecraft for the blind would also help keep other astronauts safe if the lights went out during the spacecraft’s emergency.
Some once dreamed of becoming professional astronauts on a Sunday flight and hope the study could open the door to other disabled people getting jobs.
The European Space Agency announced this year that it is amputating or especially short of those who are accepting astronaut applications from them and hopes to expand in the future to include more types of disabilities. Courtney Beasley, a NASA spokeswoman, said the US agency was not considering changing its election criteria.
The rules of some private space companies are more forgiving than those of government agencies. Although SpaceX did not respond to a request for comment, Haley became the first person with an artificial instrument to travel into orbit in September during the Inspiration4 flight on the Arsenox company’s crew dragon capsule.
Axiom Space, which is booking flights to the International Space Station in SpaceX’s car, and Virgin Galactic, which flew a suborbital space plane, do not have a list of ineligible conditions for astronauts, and they say they consider accommodation in each case. Foundation
Virgin Galactic Chief Medical Officer Dr. Tarah Castleberry said the company will conduct medical screenings for each astronaut to ensure safety and is currently considering flying instruments with artificial instruments, hearing impairments, paralysis and other medical conditions and physical disabilities.
Blue Origin, a company owned by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, said in a statement that passengers must fill out their own functional requirements list that could exclude blind, deaf or mobility-impaired people from flying.
Apurba Varia, 48, a deaf person and a person who will continue to be excluded by such rules.
“The space agency told us we couldn’t go into space, but why? Show me the evidence, ”he said.
In ninth grade, Mr. Varia remembers watching a spacecraft launch on TV. The channel did not have a closed caption, so Mr. Varia did not understand what the shuttle was, or why people were sitting inside wearing orange suits. When the countdown was zero, he said he was surprised to see the sky explode and disappear.
Shortly afterwards, Mr. Varia wrote a letter to NASA asking if he could apply to become an astronaut. He received an answer that NASA could not accept deaf astronauts at that time.
Mr. Varia holds an advanced engineering degree and has worked at NASA for two decades to conduct space missions and assist in the design of propulsion systems for satellites.
He went a little closer to the dream on Sunday’s flight. As he tries to sign in American Sign Language and drinks a large, floating water bubble, he sees himself crashing into walls and ceilings, spilling into his mouth.
“It was an experience outside of this world,” he said. “I hope to go into space one day.”