Meet John McFall, the world’s first astronaut with a disability

On a cold November evening, John McFall sat with his brother-in-law outside his local pub in the seaside town of Portsmouth when he noticed a missed call on his phone. He excused himself and moved to a quieter place to answer a call from an unknown number in Paris—a call he had been waiting for weeks.

At this point in her life, McFall had embarked on a remarkable journey from losing her right leg above the knee in a motorcycle accident at age 19 to becoming a talented athlete after becoming a bronze medalist at the 2008 Beijing Paralympics. orthopedic doctor.

Now, as she rushed to dial the number, the news of her latest career change was only a phone call away. After all, you don’t want to wait for the CEO of the European Space Agency (ESA).

The call did not last long. “John, I’m pleased to tell you that we’ve reviewed your application and you’ve been successful,” CEO Josef Aschbacher told him. McFall was one of 16 people selected as ESA’s newest class of astronauts, to be announced at a ceremony in Paris. It also meant breaking the glass ceiling: He would become the world’s first disabled astronaut in the 64-year history of modern space exploration.

He was also, as you might expect, dumb.

McFall returned to his seat and raised a glass with his brother-in-law and thought for a moment. What was her 19-year-old self thinking about all this?

He thought about his mantra, a line his father had told him shortly after his accident while on a gap year in Thailand in September 2000, and the frustrating months of recovery that followed.

He can still recall vivid memories of those dark moments. In Roehampton Hospital’s amputation rehabilitation wing, he spent a night unable to sleep between deep sobs. “All I could think about was putting pen to paper,” says McFall. “I had a photo album from the travels I had just returned from, so I turned to the back page and made this poem.” He called it: “Opportunity.”

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The last four lines read:

As my tears tear down this page, they are not sorrow, regret, despair, or guilt,
But madness, to forget that my heart is still beating
And from behind the doors I now reach,
An opportunity arises.

The poem summed up his attitude towards his newly acquired disability and the situation he found himself in: “It was not the end of my life as a two-legged person, but only the beginning of my life as a one-legged person. ” he says. “But it was my responsibility to open those doors. They were wide open and it was just my job to open them and get in.”

He took that energy and fire and used it to become a Paralympian. At the 2008 Beijing Games, he won a bronze medal in the 100m (T42). Friends and family were also on hand to provide close support. For Christmas, his father had bought him an atlas, perhaps to remind him that he still had a life full of adventure. On an inside page, he wrote a line that McFall now considers an “unconscious mantra.”

It read: “Son, always go the extra mile. Life will reward you.”

All these thoughts went through McFall’s head as he sat in the pub, now a spacewalker. The ESA application itself was serious business. He started working long days in the ITU (intensive care unit) again in February 2021, when McFall received a message from a close friend and adviser, as COVID-19 overwhelmed the hospital. “His words were: ‘John, they’re looking for Paralympians to be astronauts. You have to apply.’” McFall recalls.

The counselor had heard all about McFall’s life during long shifts at the hospital. It was the first time in 13 years that ESA had recruited a new astronaut, and it seemed unlikely. McFall thought it sounded ridiculous, but he reviewed personality traits, listing traits such as “good in hostile environments,” “excellent communicator,” “ability to process large amounts of information.” He thought maybe it would be perfect? He had a medical degree and the required experience. Why not? he thought.

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For McFall, a father of three young children, time is precious, and what comes next will be a huge commitment. He put himself through an extensive six-step process that included eight hours of psychomotor and memory tests in Hamburg, Germany, as well as extensive panel interviews with former astronauts and senior ESA executives at their base in Paris. In addition, he sat alone with Ashbacher himself.

In the interviews, the psychologists wanted to know how he would react in stressful situations and whether he was really thinking about the big picture. He said, “You’re talking to a bunch of 10-year-olds. How do you tell them you’re going to space and not coming back?” faced with such questions.

They also asked: “When part of the space program is earth observation and climate change monitoring, it uses millions of tons of carbon dioxide… How do you justify that? Do you feel comfortable with that on a personal level?”

“Basically, these were interview-style questions that asked you difficult questions, but based on your answers as an individual rather than your knowledge of a particular subject area,” says McFall.

Frankly, he says, they were satisfied with his answers. Now comes the task of sending it into space. Starting in April, McFall will work with ESA and NASA on a feasibility study to determine whether it will be possible to complete a mission to the International Space Station. The thing is, it’s never been done before.

Currently, the answer to the feasibility test is that they don’t know. “The test can probably be broken down into three different parts,” says McFall. “What are the challenges of being an amputee that will lead to some training tasks on Earth, whether basic training, pre-mission, or mission-specific tasks. Part Two: What are the challenges of putting me on a spacecraft? What spacecraft or platform am I launched on, if any?” , what challenges might cause me problems?Does the spacecraft have to be adapted?

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“I want to participate, I want to be part of the team, I want to do spacewalks and keep the equipment out. I want to do everything that all the other astronauts are doing and contribute to the team. I want to be a space tourist.”

Nor is it representative of the many physically disabled people around the world, he explains. McFall recognizes that there is an opportunity to raise the profile of disability for employers, but he is careful to describe his role in doing so.

“I’m a bit conscious that I’m not representative of the whole disabled population. I have a very simple, static disability, and there are people out there with more complex disabilities,” she explains.

“It’s important to recognize that this is a small step towards addressing the issue of inclusion in all areas of employment of people with disabilities. So it’s not ‘John Shaw’, it’s a step to get people talking more about disability, because what do people think about it?” the more they talk, the less stigma there is…the more opportunities they will have in life.”

A new class of astronauts was announced at a ceremony held in Paris last week. On stage, McFall beamed and as he passed the microphone, he promised that ESA has a lot to offer in its quest to send someone with a physical disability into space.

“The idea is that I’m an astronaut like all the other astronauts and cosmonauts, doing scientific research in space, maintaining the spacecraft inside and out, working the same schedule and salary and working alongside my fellow astronauts,” McFall said.

“I think it’s like being a doctor — I’m not a paramedic. I’m a doctor and it’s going to be the same thing; I’m an astronaut.”

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