Why We Need Astronauts With Disabilities

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Why We Need Astronauts With Disabilities
An illustration of a U.S. astronaut with a ponytail and cochlear implant floating in front of a spaceship window, looking out at distant Earth.
Illustration: Vicky Leta

This week, Baton Rouge native Hayley Arceneaux, 29, is poised to become the youngest American ever to go to space. Also a first is that Arceneaux is headed to orbit after having survived cancer at age 10—she’ll be the first person in space with a prosthetic, as her cancer treatment required bones in her left leg to be replaced with rods. Hopefully, she won’t be the last, as both government and private space missions begin to seek out astronauts with differing abilities.

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Sci-fi literature and cinema have long used the trope of starting new colonies on another planet, and the disabled are always left behind while the healthy and those perceived as more capable go off to explore and have adventures. In sci-fi, the absence of the disabled is often accepted as fact—that’s how deep-routed ableism is. But now that trope of space colonies without the disabled is about to be no more, so writers are going to have to reimagine the stories they tell and the worlds they create.

One of the arguments for not having the disabled depicted in space is that “artificial intelligence will remedy every medical issue in the future.” What’s flummoxing about this argument is that if humanity goes to another planet, we are destined to find new environments, new challenges, and new diseases, and the building of a new colony will likely result in at least some temporary and permanent injuries. Unforeseen catastrophes will be around every corner. Instead of denying the disabled a place in, let us look at the advantages they may have and what they can teach everyone.

In February, the European Space Agency sought more diverse astronauts, including the disabled. They recently announced that there were a record 22,000 applicants for four to six seats and 20 reserve positions; 200 of them were disabled. A government-run space flight with a disabled astronaut would be the first of its kind. The ESA, through its parastronaut feasibility project, hopes to find what kind of accommodations need to be made for the disabled to travel into space. Although the ESA should be lauded for its ground-breaking initiative, there are still exclusionary requirements to become an astronaut with a disability: The mission is currently seeking only “persons who have a lower limb deficiency (e.g. due to amputation or congenital limb deficiency)”; “persons who have a leg length difference (shortened limbs at birth or as a result of trauma)”; and “persons of short stature (<130 cm).”

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