He’s a Paralympian, a Surgeon and Now the First Disabled Astronaut

LONDON — John McFall is no stranger to challenges. An avid sprinter in his youth, he had to learn to run again after losing his leg in a motorcycle accident when he was 19 years old.

She learned well: At the Beijing Paralympics in 2008, she won the bronze medal in the 100m. Not content with that, he trained as an orthopedic surgeon.

Mr. McFall now has his sights set even higher, much, much higher.

On Wednesday, the European Space Agency named Mr. McFall as one of its new recruits, making him the world’s first physically disabled astronaut, the agency said.

He joins 16 other fresh faces from across Europe, chosen from some 22,500 applicants, as the agency sought to diversify its pool of astronauts in its first recruitment drive in more than a decade.

“I can provide inspiration,” Mr. McFall, 41, said at the cohort’s opening on Wednesday. “Inspiration that science is for everyone,” he added, and that “potentially, space is for everyone.”

Tim Peake, who became the first British astronaut for the European Space Agency in 2008, said the recruitment of McFall was “absolutely groundbreaking”.

“He’s really going to push the envelope,” Mr. Peake said. “He is paving the way for astronauts with future disabilities to do so as well.”

Along with the selection of Mr. McFall, efforts to broaden the profile of recruits bore other fruits: last time, in 2008, the agency selected just one woman, Samantha Cristoforetti from Italy, to join the program. The other five chosen were men. This year, eight of the 17 selected candidates they were women.

But the agency acknowledged that the lack of ethnically diverse candidates was disappointing.

David Parker, director of human and robotic exploration at the European Space Agency, cited the problem in comments to the BBC.

“We have to think about that and reflect on why it happened,” he said.

The recruits will soon begin a 12-month basic training program at the European Astronaut Center in Germany.

In an interview published by the European Space Agency, Mr McFall said his selection had been “quite a dizzying experience”.

“As an amputee,” he said, “I never thought that being an astronaut was a possibility.”

However, it may be some time before Mr. McFall is launched into orbit.

He will soon undertake a “feasibility project” to assess how physical disability might affect space travel and how the problems might be overcome. Once that study gives it the go-ahead, it would be eligible to join any space mission.

“We have to go through astronaut training and figure out what it is with a physical handicap that makes it difficult and overcome those hurdles, so it adds an extra layer of complexity,” Mr. McFall said in the interview with the agency.

The father of three children, he joked in the agency interview that he had been looking for a career change.

“I realized that I couldn’t be an athlete my whole life, I probably needed to get a proper job,” he said.

The European Space Agency, which is based in Paris, was established in 1975 and has a staff of around 2,200, although only a select few are astronauts. The organization is financed by the fiscal contributions of each one of the 22 member states.

Although the European Space Agency’s $6.75 billion budget last year was significantly less than NASA’s $23.3 billion allocation for the same period, the organization has made leaps in recent times, including developing the European Service Module, the unit that is helping propel NASA’s Orion capsule around the moon.

“This is an extraordinary time for human spaceflight and for Europe,” David Parker, director of human and robotic exploration at the European Space Agency, said in a statement Wednesday.

“We are at the forefront of human space exploration,” he added.