Disabled access sign on building

What Does Access Really Mean?

Space for All – Part Two:

If you have ever experienced a disability on Earth, whether permanent or temporary, you know that the social and physical environment around you can help or hinder your involvement in everyday life. I had a back problem many years ago, when I worked for Harvard University, and it prevented me from walking from my office to Harvard Yard, several blocks away. On one occasion, I tried to get a taxi to take me to a meeting in the Yard, but it was too short a trip for the driver to consider it worthwhile. I couldn’t go.

I was lucky, because my back problem cleared up, without surgery, and it has not re-occurred.

Others are less fortunate, because their problems are chronic and lifelong. I don’t know what this is like, but I got a taste of it.

It took the United States just over 200 years to recognize that accessibility ought to be a right for all of its citizens. The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 began to right many of the wrongs that poor access had visited on those with impairments of various kinds.

people having fun and drinking beer
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Accessibility in Space

However, no such regulations exist for spacecraft or space communities.
In response, a new nonprofit, AstroAccess, has been formed to call attention to the problems and opportunities that need to be addressed if we are truly committed to “Space for All.”

Their mission reads, in part, as follows:

AstroAccess is a project dedicated to promoting disability inclusion in space exploration by paving the way for disabled astronauts in STEM by launching disabled scientists, veterans, students, athletes, and artists on parabolic flights with the Zero Gravity Corporation (ZERO-G), as the first step in a progression toward flying a diverse range of people to space. These “AstroAccess Ambassadors” experience weightlessness and carry out lunar gravity, Martian gravity, and zero gravity observations and experiments investigating how the physical environment aboard space vessels should be modified so that all astronauts and explorers, regardless of disability on Earth, can live, work, and thrive in space.

I recently attended a space business conference at MIT, and AstroAccess representatives spoke there. One of their speakers was blind, and it made me think about how a blind person might fare in the space environment. If we are thinking about a spacecraft, it might be somewhat easier than on Earth. A space station, for example, is relatively contained, and I can imagine memorizing the layout after exploring it a few times. Zero-G might also be helpful.

On a planetary surface, like the Moon or Mars, the challenges might be similar to those on Earth, modified by the reduced gravity field, of course. There has not been a lot of thought given to animals in space, but perhaps trained dogs might travel with their owners, or robot dogs could take over the job of real canines.

Disability As An Advantage

When I recently attended Yuri’s Night on the Space Coast, I had a conversation with a deaf person, but the discussion only happened because an AstroAccess team member was there to help out. We talked about whether being hearing-impaired would keep him from experiencing the Overview Effect. I said that I doubted it because this is primarily a visual experience. He told me something interesting, which is that deaf people seem not to get sick on Zero-G flights. Maybe this means they would not suffer from space sickness, which happens because astronauts’ inner ears are disrupted by weightlessness.

sky earth space working
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Most of the current thinking regarding disabilities in the space environment is focused on individual spacecraft and on missions. However, we will eventually shift to a longer-term view, moving from “mission to migration.”

If we are going to have millions, or even billions, of humans living and working in the solar ecosystem, we will need a plan, which is the mission of the nonprofit organization that I co-founded, the Human Space Program.

Our intent is for that plan to be sustainable, ethical, and inclusive. To achieve that, we will have to consider migrants with a rage of disabilities, in a variety of environments. It’s a tall order, but one the space community must fill, if we are going to have “space for all.”

This is why I’m pleased to serve on the advisory board for Above Space, a company that has become a powerful advocate for the vision of a future in space that includes all of us.

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