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The Quack #3: Why Disabled Astronauts Must Lead Us to the Stars
Disabled spacefarers in science fiction, NASA's history with disability, and more.
When I was a kid, I was obsessed with outer space. Inspired by a night spent stargazing on a trip to Idaho, I requested a telescope as a 10th birthday present and spent hours flipping through the glossy book of constellations that came with it, memorizing their names and connected myths. Not too long before that, I’d invented a planet called Dolphineaglea that I pretended was my true home, naming it for two creatures whose ways of getting around—swimming and flying—seemed magical to me when walking with my inadequately developed joints was so laborious. Eventually, I spent time at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center’s Space Camp in Huntsville, Alabama, where I was assigned the role of scientist on our group mission, meaning that I sat in the back of the shuttle and did “experiments” that, as I recall, mostly involved mixing up gelatinous substances in a Petri dish.1
The wider solar system and the galaxies beyond beckoned to me because I could imagine myself floating there: jumping, leaping, moving through space without pain, or at least with less difficulty. While gravity weighed heavily on my joints on Earth, I knew I could bound across the moon, or drift in zero-G on a spaceship.
And then there were the aliens, the beings with bodies and consciousnesses profoundly unlike our own. On my favorite television series about space, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and the (very) short-lived SNICK show Space Cases2, humanoids who functioned in wildly different ways coexisted on space vessels and attempted to figure out how to accommodate one another’s needs. It didn’t always work out, and disability still functioned more as metaphor in those narratives than as an actual feature of any character’s experience, but the approach to access remained revelatory to me. Access was a primary consideration for the characters in these scenarios because careful engineering was key to ensuring these various life forms could survive in realms where things could—and did—go terribly wrong.
Despite my love for space and my fervent desire to visit the Moon at least once (okay, maybe twice if it turned out to be cool enough), I knew early on that I couldn’t be an astronaut. It might have been my low vision that made it clear to me before I even considered my multiple epiphyseal dysplasia: somewhere along the way I learned that astronauts were expected to have perfect vision and be in optimal physical condition, which I certainly wasn’t.
In the fictional futures I encountered onscreen, disabled characters (almost always played by abled actors) who entered space either had a technological off-switch for their disability3 or were subject to ableism that looked much more 20th century than 24th.4 The majority of science fiction novels wrote disabled people out of existence, casually gesturing toward scientific achievements (read: advances in eugenics) that made us obsolete if they bothered to explain our absence in worlds beyond Earth at all.
In truth, though, disabled people have been part of the story of space travel since the early days of NASA. After all, no human has evolved to exist in space—any argument about “natural” and “normative” bodies falls apart when you consider putting humans in environments that can only be made accessible through exorbitantly expensive and complex machinery. Space, in fact, is a disabling environment: over time, any person outside of the comfortable confines of Earth will experience impairment through exposure to radiation, microgravity, and other features of the environment that result in health issues including bone loss, muscle deterioration, changes in the immune system, and other long-term effects we’re only beginning to understand.
Before NASA sent any humans into orbit, they established a joint research program with the U.S. School of Aviation Medicine to study the effects of prolonged weightlessness on the human body. The agency recruited 11 Deaf men from Gallaudet College (now Gallaudet University) to participate in rigorous experiments to help researchers understand how the body’s sensory systems work when gravitational cues from the inner ear are unavailable. All these young men had become deaf early in life due to spinal meningitis, which damaged the vestibular systems of their inner ear and meant they did not experience motion sickness (a major concern in spaceflight). Seasick researchers had to opt out of an experiment conducted in the roiling seas of Nova Scotia: the men from Gallaudet, however, were fine.
I learned about this piece of disability history via Mission: AstroAccess, a project dedicated to promoting disability inclusion in space exploration. On their parabolic flights simulating zero gravity, disabled AstroAccess Ambassadors in STEM and other fields carry out essential observations and experiments analyzing what adaptations are needed for all astronauts and explorers aboard space vessels. These flights, AstroAccess asserts, are the first step toward launching disabled astronauts into space.
Project lead Sheri Wells-Jensen lays out the reasons this push is necessary in her Scientific American piece “The Case for Disabled Astronauts,” citing accidents like the temporary blinding of astronaut Chris Hadfield on a spacewalk in 2001 and a fire onboard the Mir space station as evidence that centering disability in design increases the life-saving potential of technology that’s responsive to situations encountered in spaceflight. If space suits and vessels are designed for blind and deaf individuals, they’ll be safer—tactile feedback, the use of sign language, and multimodal methods of managing equipment mean all astronauts can function better in situations where their sensory experience shifts. None of us can rely on our bodies functioning in space the same way that they do on Earth; a radical reframing of our ideas of accessibility and adaptability are necessary to create devices and environments that serve humans as best as they can in outer space.
Some people disabled by circumstances on Earth may, in fact, find themselves enabled in space, as AstroAccess participant and double-amputee Dwayne Fernades notes in this interview with Gizmodo. “On that zero-G flight,” he says, “I had my condition—the condition stayed—but the barrier went.” Describing himself as “super-enabled” in weightlessness, with “upgradeable parts,” he describes the advantages he would have over astronauts with legs, which “get in the way” and add extra weight in space.
The world does have our first physically disabled astronaut: John McFall, a Paralympian and orthopedic surgeon who is currently undergoing training to become eligible for space missions with the European Space Agency. He was selected to take part in the Parastronaut Feasibility Project, which, like the recent Parastronaut Feasibility Foundational Research Study undertaken by the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies with the sponsorship of NASA5, only focuses on three disabilities: lower limb difference, leg length difference, and short stature. Though people with physical and mental disabilities are categorically barred from becoming astronauts, little to no other research by the ESA or NASA appears to exist on how to design vessels and equipment for disabled bodies in space.
Both agencies cite shifting societal views on diversity and inclusion as a principal reason they’ve undertaken these initiatives. But these agencies remain well behind the times when it comes to disability. NASA hasn’t announced any changes to their astronaut selection process, even though the report from the study they sponsored concluded that “subject matter experts consulted by the Potomac Institute indicated there are no likely barriers due to feasibility.” Instead, “the question revolves on whether there is significant motivation, allocation of resources (i.e., time and funding), and a thorough understanding of the overall mission risk (both to human and engineering systems) to change and evolve astronaut selection criteria for the modern era of human space flight.”6 In other words, ableism is the barrier—not disability.
Why did NASA consider the Gallaudet Eleven vital as subjects of research, but never take steps to recruit Deaf astronauts? Why are disabled people deemed necessary when our data can be used to aid the able-bodied (the ones who, in this case, could be disabled in space by motion sickness), but are considered burdens or problems to be solved as soon as we start asserting our agency and right to be included in the future? Equating disability with an insurmountable level of need is absurd when every single person who sets out into space uses billions of dollars in highly specialized equipment to get there.
These questions aren’t far-off science fiction, but pressing considerations in our current reality. We’re on the cusp of a potential revolution when it comes to space travel, with private corporations vying to expand commercial spaceflights and various entities racing to reach (and colonize) Mars. The requirements on these flights may be laxer, but NASA and other governmental space exploration agencies remain standard setters in the field, with the resources to implement the technologies and procedures necessary for disabled spacefarers to travel safely aboard various vessels.
With the issues facing us on Earth, it’s fair to argue that our home turf is where we should be investing all our efforts. But as progress accelerates on space exploration, it’s imperative that disabled people aren’t left behind—that space doesn’t become another inaccessible frontier. Disability must be at the forefront of these conversations so that disabled people aren’t erased as we considered how humanity moves forward, and because disabled creativity, ingenuity, and insight will strengthen the strategies for how we get there. And those conversations must be intersectional: making sure that people of color and queer people, among other historically marginalized groups, are leading these discussions is key to creating equitable futures, on this planet or off.
Disabled creators and leaders in space exploration know the question of our science fiction futures and our present realities are deeply intertwined. Technology developed by NASA often becomes of use in other spheres: innovations in the use of microgravity, the design of prosthetic devices, and many other areas made relevant by the inclusion of disabled astronauts could have huge benefits in terrestrial care, as the Potomac Institute study points out7. Mission: AstroAccess uses the slogan “If we can make space accessible, we can make any space accessible,” highlighting the work there is to do here on the ground and the opportunities this era of reconsidering ideas of access and built environments brings.
If you’re still having trouble picturing disabled people in space, leading missions and contributing their knowledge and experience to teams on shuttles and orbiting stations, I’m happy to tell you that disabled authors have been showing us how to envision these futures for years. While many television shows and movies remain unimaginative when it comes to portraying the lives of disabled people who have traveled to the stars, stories and books by disabled writers offer a more radical and detailed range of ideas of what those scenarios might look like. Two anthologies in particular—Accessing the Future, edited by Djibril Al-Ayad and Kathryn Allan, and Uncanny Magazine’s Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction, edited by Dominick Parisien and Elsa Sjunneson—feature stories exploring disability and neurodivergence in outer space.
In the preface for Accessing the Future, JoSelle Vanderhooft calls for disabled people to “remind the abled that the modern world they take for granted would not have been possible without our minds, our bodies, our genius. For what is much of science and technology if not the ongoing pursuit of accommodations?” The cover of the collection depicts a floating person in a spacesuit whose disabilities, if they exist, can’t be speculated on, because every human needs assistive technology to survive beyond Earth’s atmosphere. The collection features a variety other tales and essays about spacefarers with different disabilities navigating life off Earth, with the promise that disabled and neurodivergent people will be present in those futures.
Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction opens with Will Alexander’s short story “The House on the Moon,” presenting a world where disabled people have survived eugenicists’ attempts to make sure they never enter environs beyond Earth, and people of all abilities find that certain adaptations—canes, crutches, sign language—are useful on the Moon. Later in the collection, Merc Fenn Wolfmoor’s story “The Frequency of Compassion” features first contact with alien life, and an autistic, agender astronaut who becomes the best person to handle a delicate situation with non-human consciousnesses because they don’t make the assumptions a neurotypical person might make about the nature of extraterrestrials.
The nonfiction and essays in the collection also tackle representation, craft, and the trauma of watching yourself be written out of humanity’s story even in the most fantastical and far-reaching genres. Andi C. Buchanan’s essay “Design a Spaceship” is a stellar encapsulation of the ways disabled people are shut out of the present and imagined futures in space (even when creatures with claws and aliens breathing methane are accommodated in fictional settings) and the urgent need to reject the narrow space we’re allotted by ableist society.
As Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha points out in their fantastic essay collection The Future is Disabled: Prophecies, Love Notes and Mourning Songs, Black writers have often led the push to move the genre forward when it comes to disabled futurism, with authors like Octavia Butler, Rivers Solomon, and Nnedi Okorafor crafting the most complex and revolutionary versions of speculative realities. Solomon, in an interview with the podcast Power Not Pity, connects disability directly with a capacity to answer the question of “what if,” because disabled people are “already sort of living the ‘what if’ lives.” Whether because of the assistive devices and cutting-edge technologies disabled people use or the fact that “our lives are often different than what’s the norm for the people who are enabled by society’s structures,” Solomon says, “our lives have a sci-fi aspect to them.”
As we continue to map our place in the stars, I hope that encountering an inhospitable environment opens our minds to the possibilities on our own terrain. Instead of compelling us to try to tame or conquer outer space, can it shift how we consider life on Earth? Can we recognize that the ultimate joy of our home planet is that it is made for us—all of us?
Until the next Quack,
Possibilities, Problems, And Powers: An Exercise
In the last Quack, I talked about the superhero comedy Extraordinary, which takes place in a world where (almost) everyone gains a power when they turn eighteen. This exercise is inspired by the show, but instead imagine that everyone around you remains ordinary while you gain one of two superpowers: the ability to fly or to become invisible.
At first this power seems great and ripe with possibilities—but as time goes on, you notice there are consequences to using it. If you chose flying, over time the frequent use of your power means you have trouble remaining on the ground: you’re often floating a foot or two above it, making it difficult to navigate through the world of those bound by gravity. And if you choose invisibility, you notice that every time you use your power you have a hard time making yourself visible again, and have to wait at least a couple of hours before you’ve fully reappeared.
Consider when and how you would use your power with these trade-offs. Would you save its use only for emergencies, or events you deemed necessary? Or would you relish using it for recreation and enjoyment, and account for the time and energy needed to get back to your regular state? Maybe you’d stop worrying about being in a “regular” state at all and embrace your power as your default way of being. What adaptations would you make in your life to account for that power? How would you talk about the complex nature of your power with others, and how would you like to see them support you?
Artist to Watch: Chella Man
Chella Man is a New York-based artist, director, and author whose work features the continuums of disability, race, gender, and sexuality. The expansive breadth of his work includes films, performance art, collages, sketches, and more, and explores various facets of his identity with a sense of determination, curiosity, and hopefulness.
I particularly love his short film “The Beauty of Being Deaf,” which has particular resonance in this Quack about using sign language in space exploration. In the three-minute short, three performers, including the artist, float underwater, wearing flexible and gorgeously designed ear jewelry made to work easily with hearing aids and cochlear implants. Moving as easily as merpeople, they tell a story about the ideas of loss, beauty, and the assumptions hearing people make, demonstrating the dimensions of communication that can unfold in soundless environments. Find the film and more of Chella Man’s work here.
It’s also where I developed a taste for freeze-dried “astronaut” ice cream—still love that chunky, chalky weirdness, tbh.
Starring Firefly’s Jewel Staite, whose character Catalina I related to as much for the queer aesthetic of her rainbow hair as her unconventional way of seeing reality.
While I was a fan of LeVar Burton as Geordi La Forge on Star Trek: The Next Generation growing up, Geordi’s access to technology meant his blindness ceased to exist, or instead that his altered vision became a superpower—a common trope for disabled characters in fiction.
When a character in a wheelchair showed up in DS9—for an episode—because the Cardassian-built station wasn’t up to Starfleet engineering standards, finding her a cure for her condition became the other characters’ main concern. The character, Melora, isn’t disabled in the low gravity of her home world, and uses a hoverchair on other Starfleet vessels, where anti-grav technology functions fine. She’s forced to work in an inadequately accommodating environment in the episode, but Melora’s body becomes the focus of the “problem.” (As Melora says: “The truth is there is no ‘Melora’ problem—until people create one.”) The draft of the episode was written by Evan Carlos Somers, a disabled writer who, incidentally, also wrote for Space Cases, and who drew on his experiences getting around the outdated and inaccessible DS9 offices for the episode. Inaccessibility is, in fact, why Melora’s story was a one-shot: she was originally intended to be the show’s science officer, but the idea of portraying a character from a low-gravity environment was eventually deemed too costly and difficult, leading her to be replaced by Jadzia Dax. It also led to the arc of her story changing: she was supposed to use a remodeled hoverchair from an episode of The Next Generation, because anti-grav technology has been part of the Star Trek universe since The Original Series. The hoverchair prop, however, was built for the Enterprise, and couldn’t fit through the narrow Deep Space Nine corridor sets. (You can find all this information and more on the episode here.) Refusal to rethink our use of a space and make accessibility a primary consideration has a real impact on our ability to imagine the future.
Potomac Institute for Policy Studies (2021.) Parastronaut Feasibility Foundational Research Study: Abbreviated Report, p. 14.
“Investment in technology and capabilities to enable parastronauts could translate beyond human space exploration to terrestrial medicine and health care. For example, low Earth orbit could lend applicable for ‘Space Rehab,’ that is, leveraging microgravity to conduct more effective physical therapy and rehabilitation. One expert noted that low Earth orbit-based rehabilitation could be beneficial to new amputees, enabling them to manage re-loading and weight bearing rehabilitation possibly more effectively than on Earth. Further, technological innovations realized through parastronaut inclusion could be utilized in terrestrial care. Much like the DoD has been a driver for prosthetic device technology in recent decades, NASA could see dual use in innovations for individuals with disabilities beyond parastronauts. The DoD advances have benefited not only veterans, but the greater disabled community. NASA has the opportunity to make a similar impact.” Potomac Institute for Policy Studies (2021). Parastronaut Feasibility Foundational Research Study: Report, p. 64-65.