person in white astronaut suit

How To Define What is a Disability in Zero-G

Space For All: Part 1

By Frank White

If you are no longer on Earth, what is a disability? Before delving into that, let’s get specific, because we humans have a tendency to argue with one another without defining our terms.

So, let’s define “disability:”

A physical or mental condition that limits a person’s movements, senses, or activities.

Google Dictionary, from Oxford Languages,

This seems pretty straightforward, but it really isn’t. Some observers would like to do away with the term “disabled,” for example, and say, “differently abled.” However, I was in an online discussion once, where I was told that the “disabled community” wanted nothing to do with that type of sugar coating (my words, not his). They preferred to be recognized as people with disabilities.

Whatever term we use, the meaning has to be reconsidered when we talk about space exploration and space migration.

Our definitions are keyed to life on Earth, where we have Earth gravity, or one-G. At the point where astronauts or space migrants leave the Earth’s gravitational pull, they are in zero-G, or variable-G.

lonely dolphin in blue water
“because you’re weightless, you no longer need those appendages, any more than a dolphin does.”
Photo by Daniel Torobekov on

So, let’s take one example of how the paradigm shifts beyond Earth; let’s assume you do not have the use of your legs while in one-G, and you travel to the International Space Station (ISS). Well, because you’re weightless, you no longer need those appendages, any more than a dolphin does. There’s a reason astronauts train in a huge swimming pool at Johnson Space Center: it’s as close to weightlessness as they can get on Earth! And even though it’s called “spacewalking” when astronauts go outside the space station for an EVA, there really is no walking involved! Moving around outside the ISS is similar to moving around inside. Although you have to wear a bulky spacesuit to deal with the harsh environment of outer space, you are still weightless. You glide, you don’t walk.

You might use legs for maneuvering in space, but there’s zero walking in zero-G, so what would be seen as a disability on Earth simply goes away on the ISS.

The European Space Agency (ESA) is perhaps the first to recognize that the definition of “disabled” should be rewritten when we look beyond the Earth’s atmosphere. In fact. the agency has selected the first so-called “disabled” person for their astronaut program! John McFall, 41, lost a leg because of a motorcycle accident at the age of 19. He went on to represent Great Britain and Northern Ireland in the Paralympics, and now he is an astronaut.

From Mission to Migration

What we call “Space” is everything outside the Earth’s atmosphere, and it is vast. There are many different kinds of “Space,” just as there are many different levels of ability. For example, legs might once again be somewhat useful on the Moon or Mars, both of which offer a reduced gravity environment. As we move from missions to migration, we must allow for variations in what we mean by Space and what we mean by ability, or disability.

What is a Disability in space? Can The Blind Go to Space?
“Our Future In Space” Special Panel on Universal Access – Can The Blind Go To Space?

There is a movement to declare “Space for All,” and that means “all humans,” from diverse ethnic and geographic backgrounds, but also with different abilities and disabilities.

The Earth is the “first space community,” and it has taken centuries for us to accommodate those with varying levels of capabilities—physically, intellectually, and emotionally. It means all the kinds of people we have on Earth.

It would be a mark of great progress if we could look beyond single space missions to Large-Scale Space Migration and avoid, in the new space communities, the “ableist” mistakes made in the first one!

In the words of Above Space president and CEO Rhonda Stevenson, “We believe that everyone should be a part of humankind’s greatest adventure, our evolution outward, into the solar ecosystem.”

In this series, we will examine this question in much greater detail.

About the Author

Frank White is a magna cum laude graduate of Harvard College, a member of Phi Beta Kappa, and a Rhodes Scholar. He earned an M.Phil. in Politics from Oxford University, where he was a member of New College. The fourth edition of Frank’s best-known book, The Overview Effect: Space Exploration and Human Evolution, was published by Multiverse Publishing, a division of Multiverse Media LLC, in 2022. Frank is president of The Human Space Program, Inc., a nonprofit organization based on an idea initially proposed in The Overview Effect.

(c) Copyright Frank White, 2023, All Rights Reserved. Published with permission by Above Space