For the first time in 13 years, the European Space Agency (ESA) has announced a new class of astronauts, including the world's first "parastronaut". The UK's John McFall has become the first astronaut candidate with a physical disability and will take part in the agency's project to develop options that include astronauts with disabilities in future space missions.
The announcement, which took place at the Grand Palais Éphémère in Paris, revealed the five new career astronauts are: Sophie Adenot (France), Pablo Álvarez Fernández (Spain), Rosemary Coogan (UK), Raphaël Liégeois (Belgium), Marco Sieber (Switzerland), and John McFall (UK).
The new ESA Astronaut Class of 2022 also includes for the first time an astronaut reserve group, which will not immediately begin training. They are: Meganne Christian, Anthea Comellini, Andrea Patassa, Carmen Possnig, Arnaud Prost, Amelie Schoenenwald, Sara García Alonso, Aleš Svoboda, Sławosz Uznański, Marcus Wandt, and Nicola Winter.
The last class of astronauts announced was back in 2008 and included the recent commander of the International Space Station Samantha Cristoforetti, Thomas Pesquet, Tim Peake, Luca Parmitano, and Alexander Gerst.
The Parastronut Feasibility Project aims to make space exploration more equitable for all. McFall, who had his leg amputated after a motorbike accident when he was 19, is also a surgeon and silver- and bronze-medal-winning Paralympic sprinter.
The newly minted astronauts will take up duty at the European Astronaut Centre in Cologne, where they will complete 12 months of basic training. They will then move on to the Space Station training phase. Once they get assigned to a specific mission, their training will be tailored to the work they will be doing on the International Space Station and maybe even on and around the Moon.
The selection process was not easy. ESA received more than 22,500 valid applications. Of those, 831 men and 530 women were invited to the next phase of the selection process. France was the nation that sent in the most applications, with 7,087 people wanting to become an astronaut. For the role of astronaut with a physical disability, 257 applications were received.
Asked about the possibility of being included among the astronauts to spend time in the future permanent human bases on the Moon, astronaut reserve member Dr Meganne Christian said, “That’s an easy question to answer, absolutely yes!”
“The big part of what ESA and NASA are both going to be doing over the next few years is really studying how we can create an environment that is sustainable on the Moon for these longer stays. And that's a huge part of what we're doing going back to the Moon. We are going further and building upon the Apollo missions,” astronomer and new career astronaut Dr Rosemary Coogan told IFLScience.
Dr Coogan’s background is in galaxy evolution. This year she joined French national space agency CNES in Paris, where she is working on current and upcoming space missions, before going to space herself.
“I'm working for CNES and my work is really heavily involved both with exploration of JWST data and also preparing for the Euclid mission, which should be launched next year, so I'm really excited about both of those," she told IFLScience. "And, of course, in a more general sense and particularly from the UK side, we've now had the confirmation that ExoMars is going to continue to be developed where we're going to make a solution for the Lander, and that's going to be incredibly exciting as well!”
ExoMars is the European rover that was supposed to be launched to Mars this year in collaboration with Roscosmos. The Russian invasion of Ukraine stopped this collaboration, but ESA has found a solution and now the rover will be launched in 2028.