The world’s first disabled astronaut may not be able to wear his prosthesis in space due to microgravity.
John McFall, the British Paralympian, made history by becoming the European Space Agency’s (ESA) first para-astronaut when he was selected last November.
Mr McFall, 42, is an amputee who lost his leg in a motorcycle accident at the age of 19, and now uses a high-tech prosthesis equipped with a gyroscope, microprocessor and force sensors to help him stay on his feet .
It took a parabolic flight this week to experience weightlessness for the first time with the BBC, and said its cutting-edge leg might not be as useful in space as it is on Earth.
‘You’ll probably see that I’m floating with my leg straight, because that gravity isn’t there,’ he told the BBC’s Rebecca Morelle, who has also been seen floating weightless during the flight, nicknamed the ‘vomiting comet’ because it can make make the participants uncomfortable.
“It’s harder for me to turn fast, because my leg doesn’t want to bend.
“I’m just getting used to it and trying to figure out how to move in zero gravity, but every dish is a learning opportunity.
“Will I wear a prosthesis? And if I wear a prosthesis, will I need to have something to adjust for volume changes in my residual limb?
“Would I be able to run on a treadmill in space? Will we have to adapt a space suit for a spacewalk? If yes, how? All of these questions are things for which we have no answers.
Mr McFall is not guaranteed spaceflight, but he is part of ESA’s ‘parastronaut feasibility project’ to see which aspects of spaceflight need to be adapted for people with disabilities to go into space.
ESA is trying to allow people of short stature, people with missing limbs and other physical disabilities to go into space. The team is looking into everything from pre-mission training to whether or not a spacecraft needs to be modified.
Mr McFall said he hopes to inspire others and show that ‘space travel is for everyone’.
One reason for the parabolic flight was to see how well the prosthesis performs in a weightless environment.
McFall won a bronze medal in the 100m T42 category at the 2008 Beijing Paralympic Games with a time of 13.08 seconds.
He was also a world champion in the 200m dash and in his post-athletic life he trained as a physician and is now a trauma and orthopedic registrar. His medical career is now on hold while he trains with ESA’s astronaut corps.
Mr McFall is in the ESA corps alongside Dr Rosemary Coogan, a British astronomer. Dr Coogan, from Northern Ireland, was born in 1991 and has a BA in Physics, a Masters in Astronomy and a PhD in Astrophysics.
As a career astronaut, Dr. Coogan will have the chance to become one of the first people to return to the moon.