The mission to break barriers to space travel for people with disabilities

The Verge - Wed Oct 20 15:04

When Sina Bahram shifted into weightlessness for the first time on Sunday, he could feel the air brushing past his skin as his body began to float into the air. As someone who’d longed to be an astronaut since he was four years old, he’d been waiting many years to have this exact feeling.

“I knew it would be a joyous experience just because I looked forward to it for many decades of my life, but the visceral nature of that joy wasn’t brought home until you actually experience it,” Bahram, a computer scientist who runs Prime Access Consulting, tells The Verge. “It is truly indescribable.”

Bahram got to perceive free fall for the first time onboard a specially outfitted plane operated by the Zero-G Corporation, a company that provides parabolic flights that mimic the feeling of being weightless in space. He experienced the moment using his senses of touch, sound, smell, and taste — but not sight. Bahram has been legally blind for most of his life, something that effectively bars him from flying to space with NASA.

But now, having experienced weightlessness himself, he’s more confident than ever that his disability should not be a barrier to space travel. “Even when you’re feeling completely out of control because everything you know about the world from your entire lifespan is no longer true, in terms of gravity — down being down; up being up — even with all of those removed, there was never a sense of uncertainty or danger,” says Bahram.

Bahram was one of 12 people with a disability to experience weightlessness on Sunday, October 17th, during a parabolic flight, which took off from Long Beach, California. It was the first flight of its kind, arranged by a non-profit called Mission: AstroAccess, which has the stated goal of flying one or more of these flyers — called ambassadors — to space in the years ahead.

Sina Bahram, one of the 12 ambassadors on the Mission: AstroAccess flight

It’s a goal that would certainly shake up the current model for who is allowed to fly to space. To become a NASA astronaut, for instance, a candidate must be in excellent health and has to undergo a stringent physical to be considered for the program. NASA astronauts used to need 20/20 vision, though the space agency now allows individuals who wear glasses or who have had surgical procedures to correct their vision to 20/20. But NASA will not consider individuals who are blind, and any other major medical disabilities related to deafness or mobility will automatically disqualify someone from the application process.

However, human spaceflight is in the midst of a major transformation. For one thing, it’s not just NASA’s game anymore. Numerous private companies have sprung up in the last few decades aiming to send humans to various parts of space. Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin have both developed suborbital vehicles that are designed to take paying customers to the edge of space and back so that flyers can experience a brief glimpse of Earth from above. Meanwhile, SpaceX has started flying people to low Earth orbit on its new Crew Dragon spacecraft. While the company built the vehicle primarily to carry NASA astronauts to and from the International Space Station, SpaceX recently flew a crew of four civilians to orbit on the vehicle during a private three-day mission. One of those passengers, Hayley Arceneaux, had an internal prosthesis in her leg — something that would have disqualified her from flying as a NASA astronaut.

Recently, the European Space Agency announced plans to select an astronaut with a physical disability through its Parastronaut Feasibility Project. With more opportunities than ever for non-NASA astronauts to fly to space, Mission: AstroAccess is striving for people with disabilities to be included in future missions — suborbital or orbital. Ultimately, AstroAccess wants to know how the physical space inside a spacecraft might be updated so that people with sight, sound, and mobility disabilities might be able to work and thrive in a space environment.

The 12 ambassadors ahead of their flight
Image: Al Powers for Zero Gravity Corporation

Before that happens, though, AstroAccess wanted to give people with disabilities the opportunity to simply experience weightlessness. A crew of 12 were selected from a pool of applicants from all over the world to fly aboard the Zero-G Corporation’s Boeing 727. The belly of the plane is mostly gutted and padded to provide plenty of room to float around as the pilot steers the vehicle on a series of peaks and valleys to simulate weightlessness.

Once the crew had been selected, they were grouped into teams. One group, which included Bahram, had people with varying degrees of limited vision. Another group had astronauts with varying levels of deafness. And a third group had those with limited mobility — people who either use prostheses or wheelchairs to move. Together the teams came up with different types of research and experiments they wanted to conduct during the flight. Bahram and his group decided to bring Braile displays to see how they fared in weightlessness, as well as tactile sensors to help determine the direction and orientation of the plane.

Not all of their experiments panned out, Azubuike “Zuby” Onwuta, who is also legally blind, tells The Verge. “We brought on certain tools to help us conduct sound experiments, but then the roar of the engine drowned those tools that emitted sound,” said Onwuta, a US Army veteran and disability advocate who trained at Harvard-MIT.

For Viktoria Modesta, one of her biggest tasks ahead of the flight was coming up with the designs for the flight suits, which had to be tailored very specifically for each individual. Opting for black material with plenty of zippers and pockets, Modesta made sure each suit was crafted very specifically with each wearer in mind.

Viktoria Modesta experiencing weightlessness
Image: Al Powers for Zero Gravity Corporation

“A lot of customization was done to people’s flight suits, specifically with openings, pockets, extra straps, and different ways of helping their body function in zero gravity,” Modesta, a singer and performance artist who had her left leg amputated below the knee years after an accident at birth, tells The Verge. Having such highly tailored suits became critical for some of the mobility crew to have the best possible experience. For instance, one of the ambassadors had a suit with special straps that held his legs together, which made it easier to focus on maneuvering through the space. And when some of the mobility crew found themselves floating, it was the first time in years that they could move around without the use of their chair.

Each experience was different for each ambassador, and now Mission: AstroAccess has plenty of new data to help suggest what kind of accessibility-related changes should be incorporated in future spacecraft. That might include directional fabrics on the walls, for instance, to help those with limited vision determine their orientation. Bahram argues that making these kinds of updates is not just about being inclusive but also about making flights safer for every astronaut. He cited one instance in which astronaut Chris Hadfield went temporarily blind during a spacewalk when cleaning solution squirted into his eye.

“That is a failure of the system,” Bahram says. “There is no reason whatsoever that that should have been as dangerous as it was. It was because NASA has not considered persons with disabilities as viable candidates. That could have been a complete non-issue.”

With more accessible tools, all astronauts — from the able-bodied ones to those with disabilities — might have more options to remain safe during an emergency scenario. And it starts with designing a space with all types of bodies in mind.

“It’s one of these things where this level of ableism has been built into our society, and we need to understand that it is our environments that are disabling, not individuals that are disabled,” Bahram says.