AstroAccess, a nonprofit organization that promotes the inclusion of space disability, has partnered with the Aurelia Institute to advance astronaut diversity by conducting research on zero-gravity missions.

“In a sense, space is the ultimate equalizer: anyone leaving Earth is subject to the radical experience of leaving gravity behind,” the Aurelia Institute said in a blog post this month. But in another sense, real barriers to entry still exist for astronauts – whether cost, physical access or lack of alignment.

In an effort to change that, Aurelia led the zero-gravity flight Horizon 2022, which took place on May 22, with 25 crew members from various organizations, including “ambassadors” for AstroAccess. The 90-minute mission simulated space flight with 20 parables of lunar, Martian and zero gravity that lasted about 20 seconds each.

Mission basics

Each crew member on the Horizon flight had a research goal, an art project, or a story assignment to complete while in microgravity. AstroAccess participants focused on new specific tests and experiments:

  • Centra “Ce-Ce” Mazyck, a wheelchair user, sailed into the cabin using only the armrests.
  • Apurva Varia tested colored LED lights that non-verbally signaled dull leaflets to prepare for zero gravity.
  • Varia and ASL translator Justin Baldi also tested whether astronauts could understand sign language, which relies heavily on eye contact and facial expressions, while swimming at different angles from each other.
  • Victoria Modesta designed and tested a lower leg prosthesis built specifically for microgravity conditions.
  • Mona Minkara used textured surfaces, such as velcro and velvet, on the cabin walls to orient themselves without using sight.

Expanding access to space

A story: In the 1960s, 11 deaf men participated in NASA experiments on the effects of weight loss on the body. These showed that some deaf people, due to differences in the vestibular system, are immune to motion sickness. That makes them “more adaptable to foreign gravitational environments,” according to AstroAccess – but no deaf astronaut has ever been to space. In fact, NASA bans people who are blind, deaf, or have mobility-related disabilities from space missions.

A future: Last summer, the European Space Agency (ESA) announced plans to launch the first astronaut with a physical disability into space. The agency said in January that it had narrowed 22,000+ applications to less than 1,400 for its program of 4 to 6 people — and that 29 of those remaining applicants have a physical disability. And as space flights increasingly shift to private companies, there may be more opportunities for expanded access to space.

What’s next? Following this mission and the inaugural flight of AstroAccess last fall, AstroAccess Flight 2 will take place on November 19, 2022, with a crew of new and repeat ambassadors.

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