Mona Minkara is a bioengineer at Northeastern University, where she leads a laboratory focused on applying computational modeling to pulmonary research. She is also one of the only blind faculty members in her field. Recently, Minkara embarked on a different kind of experiment. She and 11 other individuals who have mobility, vision or hearing disabilities traveled on a parabolic flight with the Zero Gravity Corporation. The mission—which allowed participants to feel weightless but did not actually reach space—was organized by AstroAccess, an initiative dedicated to “advancing disability inclusion in space.”
The October 17 flight was not the first time that someone with a disability experienced microgravity. In 2007 Stephen Hawking traveled on a Zero G flight. Hawking said that on that flight, he experienced “true freedom ... I was Superman for those few minutes,” the BBC reported. Although Hawking died in 2018 without realizing his dream of traveling to space, the goal of sending disabled astronauts did not die with him.
That dream has already become a reality for Hayley Arceneaux, notes Jimmy Wu, a senior biomedical engineer at the Translation Research Institute for Space Health and an instructor at Baylor College of Medicine’s Center for Space Medicine.
Arceneaux is a physician assistant at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, where, at age 10, she was treated for osteosarcoma of the left femur. To avoid amputating her leg, her surgeon removed the cancerous bone in her knee and thigh and replaced it with prosthetic “bones” made of titanium. Last month Arceneaux, who was one of four members of the all-civilian Inspiration4 mission, spent three days in space.
AstroAccess also hopes to eventually fly one or more of their team members to space in coming years.
The current AstroAccess microgravity mission is one example of ongoing efforts to bring disabled astronauts and travelers to space. Recently, the European Space Agency (ESA) announced its “parastronaut feasibility project.” For that project, the ESA is recruiting one individual with one of three physical conditions—“a lower limb deficiency,” “a pronounced leg length difference” or “short stature” (defined as under 130 centimeters, or about four feet, three inches)—to work with the agency to study how to better enable people with disabilities to perform duties and live in space. As spaceflight, particularly private space travel, expands to more and more people, many advocates say it is critical to include those with physical and mental disabilities. Now is the time to firmly say, “Hey, let’s make sure this is inclusive to all,” Minkara says.
A “Space Cane”
For the October 17 mission, Minkara and the other ambassadors performed experiments designed “to assess how the physical environment onboard space vessels could be modified so that all astronauts and explorers, regardless of disability on Earth, can live, work, and thrive in space,” according to AstroAccess.
On Earth, Minkara uses a white cane to help orient herself and navigate the world. She produces the Planes, Trains, and Canes YouTube documentary series focusing on public transportation and disability. In that series, she has documented her travels to London, Johannesburg, Istanbul, and more. But without gravity, the cane is “useless,” she says.
Minkara does not know how microgravity will affect how she orients herself, but she is eager to find out. As a scientist, she says she is “really curious” to test “how I would feel in such an environment…. Is it as confusing as we predict it is, or [are] there some random, simple solutions that we might discover?” One tool that could help, Minkara says, is “some kind of a space cane” that would work without gravity. A fully functioning space cane does not exist just yet, but this and other aids are in the works. In September Ann Kapusta, mission and communications manager for AstroAccess, facilitated the Space Accessibility Design Sprint (or “Hackathon”) at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab. Representatives from AstroAccess, M.I.T. and others were present. But, Wu notes, future tools to be used in space by disabled astronauts will need to fall within some strict parameters.
“The challenges with spaceflight are associated with, basically, how heavy and how big everything is to be sent into space,” Wu says. Anything that increases this weight and bulk will add to the cost—one of the most prohibitive aspects of spaceflight, he notes.
Wu emphasizes that in space travel, astronauts’ basic needs are to nourish their bodies, excrete waste and sleep. “And then you look at, ‘Well, I need to be able to move around,’” he says. “‘And I need to be able to respond to a catastrophic issue.’”
Ultimately, the safety of the entire crew is the top priority, Wu says. He notes that many basic tools are designed with the assumption that the user has certain characteristics. “If I don’t have limbs to operate a fire extinguisher, that fire extinguisher is useless to me,” he says. And if, for instance, an astronaut used prosthetic hands to operate such an extinguisher, those would need to perform well enough that the user could respond to the crisis quickly and effectively.
Disabled astronauts also have certain advantages that nondisabled astronauts lack, however. In a 2018 Scientific American opinion article Sheri Wells-Jensen, a linguist at Bowling Green State University and now one of the AstroAccess ambassadors, wrote, “In a serious accident, the first thing to go might be the lights! This generally means that the first thing a sighted astronaut must do for security is ensure visual access to the environment…. Meanwhile, the blind astronaut is already heading toward the source of the problem.”
Minkara, who first heard about the AstroAccess project through Wells-Jensen, wants to see decisions about who can potentially travel to space made on a case-by-case basis. “I think it’s up to the individual and what they think is comfortable,” she says. “I think there’s also a lot of different possible potentials that different people can bring into space or whatever frontier we want to explore.”