Astronauts with disabilities can apply to Europe's space agency for 1st time

In our push for a human presence in space, there has been a group who have been left out, no matter how well-educated, fit or skilled they are: people with physical disabilities. The European Space Agency is aiming to change that.

'If we don’t start now, it's never going to happen,' says spokesperson for European Space Agency

The crew for NASA’s SpaceX Crew-2 are pictured during a training session at the SpaceX training facility in Hawthorne, Calif. From left are: mission specialist Thomas Pesquet of the European Space Agency, pilot Megan McArthur, commander Shane Kimbrough of NASA and mission specialist Akihiko Hoshide of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency. (SpaceX)

Since humans began to have a presence in space, only about 550 people have been in orbit around our planet. That's because astronauts are considered the elite: well-educated, in peak physical health and skilled. There has been, however, a group who have been left out of the running, no matter how well-educated, fit or skilled they are: people with physical disabilities.

The European Space Agency (ESA) is aiming to change that. 

In its most recent recruitment call for four to six astronauts, the agency announced its Parastronaut Feasibility Project aimed at including candidates with some physical disabilities.

Aside from fulfilling rigorous requirements, which include having a Master's degree or higher in natural sciences, medicine, engineering, mathematics or computer science, the astronaut candidates can apply if:

  • They have a lower limb deficiency (for example, due to amputation or congenital limb deficiency).
  • They have a leg length difference.
  • They are of short stature (<130 cm).

It's something that ESA believes has been a long time coming.

"It's in the principle of diversity and inclusiveness," Lucy van der Tas, head of talent acquisition at ESA.

For the first time in over a decade, ESA is looking for new astronauts. The agency is allowing astronauts with some physical disabilities to apply to go to space. (ESA)

In particular, van der Tas said that only one of the six astronauts from the last recruitment call was a woman, something they're trying to address by getting more women to apply (women only accounted for 15.5 per cent of applicants). They're aiming to increase that number to 50 per cent, while making the entire process more inclusive.

"So we're making a big push to attract more women to apply," van der Tas said. "At the same time the discussion started, insofar as no one has ever put somebody with a disability in space. And why not? And if we don't start now, it's never going to happen."

The vacancy closes on May 28 with the final selection announced in October 2022.

'Oh, my God. Finally'

When Heather heard the news, she was ecstatic.

"My first reaction was, 'Oh, my God, finally,' she said. "Then, 'Oh, but it's not the Canadian Space Agency.'"

Heather, who asked not to have her last name published due to fears about discrimination when searching for work, is a mechanical engineer living in southwestern Ontario. She has long dreamed about becoming an astronaut and said it's still her dream job. But, as she was born with cerebral palsy, that dream has been out of her reach.

"Right at the outset [the current process] rules someone like me out," she said. "There are going to be limitations that some people physically can't meet, but to rule everybody out with one brush … you're just stopped right at the door."

With a view of the iconic Vehicle Assembly Building to the left, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket soars upward from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida on April 23, 2021, carrying the company’s Crew Dragon Endeavour capsule. (NASA/Ben Smegelsky)

Her cerebral palsy affects her left side, and she has limited use of her hands, meaning she still doesn't meet the criteria in ESA's newest recruitment, but she still said it's a relief to see people with disabilities represented.

"There isn't the visibility. And so you see all the astronauts, you see those people [and think] 'that's not me,'" she said. 

While Canada is an associate member state of ESA, it is not part of their astronaut program, so Canadians can't apply. 

In 2007, world renowned cosmologist Stephen Hawking, who had motor neurone disease which left him immobile, flew in zero gravity in a modified Boeing 727 jet (the plane flies in parabolic arcs that simulate weightlessness). 

Following suit

While ESA's program may be a welcome start to many, it's just that: a start.

The current plan — which has a 1-million Euro budget — is to reassess hardware, training and other mission elements to determine what modifications may be needed to ensure people with physical disabilities are able to operate safely in space. 

"Safety is a big deal in space, and the safety of all participants," van der Tas said. "Also, there's a lot of work that needs to be done in space. So the person will also need to be able to contribute to the activities that have been done up there."

Canadian astronauts Jeremy Hansen and David Saint-Jacques stand in front of the Columbus simulator at the European Space Agency. There are several places around the world where astronauts train, including at the Canadian Space Agency's Robotic Training Centre in Montreal. (CSA/ESA/Sabine Grothues)

While no other space agencies are exploring missions for astronauts with disabilities, an emailed statement from NASA said they are following ESA's program with interest.

"NASA applauds ESA's emphasis on diversity and inclusion for its para-astronaut selection process and program. NASA shares a common goal with our commercial and international partnerships to make space fully accessible," the agency said.

The Canadian Space Agency said they "explored opening recruitment campaigns to people with disabilities in the past, however, through preliminary consultations with partners at the time, we could not identify a disability that would not limit mission assignment."

They also said that, "although there is currently no recruitment campaign planned in Canada, we look forward to the results of ESA's project, which aims to offer professional spaceflight opportunities to a wider pool of people."

Heather said she's still holding out hope that Canada will make changes to their recruitment program.

"I really would like to see us step up and say this is obviously the direction we're going," she said. "It's time we made some changes."


Nicole Mortillaro

Senior reporter, science

Based in Toronto, Nicole covers all things science for CBC News. As an amateur astronomer, Nicole can be found looking up at the night sky appreciating the marvels of our universe. She is the editor of the Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada and the author of several books. In 2021, she won the Kavli Science Journalism Award from the American Association for the Advancement of Science for a Quirks and Quarks audio special on the history and future of Black people in science. You can send her story ideas at


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