He’s a Paralympian, a Surgeon and Now the First Disabled Astronaut

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LONDON — John McFall is no stranger to a challenge. An avid sprinter in his youth, he had to relearn how to run after losing his leg in a motorcycle accident at the age of 19.

He learned well: at the Paralympic Games in Beijing in 2008 he won the bronze medal in the 100 meters. Not satisfied with that, he trained as an orthopedic surgeon.

Mr. McFall has now set his sights even higher – much, much higher.

On Wednesday, the European Space Agency named Mr. McFall as one of its newest recruits, making him the world’s first physically disabled astronaut, the agency said.

He joins 16 other new faces from across Europe, chosen from approximately 22,500 applicants, as the agency sought to diversify its pool of astronauts during its first recruitment campaign in more than a decade.

“I can bring inspiration,” Mr McFall, 41, said at the unveiling of the cohort on Wednesday. “Inspiration that science is for everyone,” he added, and that “potentially, space is for everyone.”

Tim Peake, who became the European Space Agency’s first British astronaut in 2008, said Mr McFall’s recruitment was “absolutely groundbreaking”.

“He’s really going to push the boundaries,” said Mr. Peake. “He paves the way for astronauts with future disabilities to do the same.”

In addition to selecting Mr. McFall, efforts to broaden the profile of recruits bore fruit: last time, in 2008, the agency selected just one woman, Samantha Cristoforetti of Italy, to participate in the program. The other five chosen ones were men. This year eight of the 17 successful candidates were women.

But the agency acknowledged that the lack of ethnically diverse candidates was disappointing.

David Parker, the director of human and robotic exploration at the European Space Agency, raised the issue in comments to the BBC.

“We need to think about that and think about why it happened,” he said.

The recruits will soon begin a 12-month basic training at the European Astronaut Center in Germany.

In an interview released by the European Space Agency, Mr McFall said his selection had been “quite a whirlwind experience”.

“As an amputee,” he said, “I never thought being an astronaut was a possibility.”

However, it may take some time for Mr. McFall is launched into orbit.

He will soon conduct a “feasibility project” to assess how physical disabilities could affect space travel and how any problems could be overcome. Once that study has made everything clear to him, he would be eligible to participate in space missions.

“We have to go through astronaut training and figure out what it’s like to have a physical disability that makes it difficult and overcome those hurdles, so it adds another layer of complexity,” said Mr. McFall in the agency interview.

A father of three, he joked in the interview with the agency that he was looking for a career change.

“I realized I couldn’t be an athlete all my life, I probably had to get a good job,” he said.

Headquartered in Paris, the European Space Agency was founded in 1975 and has about 2,200 employees, although only a select few are astronauts. The body is funded by tax contributions from each of the 22 Member States.

While the European Space Agency’s $6.75 billion budget last year was significantly smaller than NASA’s $23.3 billion allocation for the same period, the organization has made significant strides in recent times, including the development of the European Space Agency. Service Module – the unit that orbits NASA’s Orion capsule.

“This is an extraordinary time for human spaceflight and for Europe,” David Parker, the European Space Agency’s director of human and robotic exploration, said in a statement Wednesday.

“We are at the forefront of human space exploration,” he added.