ESA Names Former Paralympic Sprinter as First Ever 'Parastronaut'

The European Space Agency named former British Paralympic sprinter John McFall as its first ever “parastronaut” on Wednesday, November 23.

McFall, 41, will take part in a feasibility study designed to help the 22-nation agency assess the conditions needed for people with disabilities to take part in future space missions.

“It’s been quite a whirlwind experience, given that as an amputee, I’d never thought that being an astronaut was a possibility. So excitement was a huge emotion,” McFall said in an interview posted on ESA’s website.

McFall was among 17 recruits picked for astronaut training by the European Space Agency. Credit: European Space Agency via Storyful

Video transcript

[MUSIC PLAYING]

- An astronaut, why not you? We look up at the night sky and wonder, who we are, and where we come from? What if the answers were within reach. The European Space Agency cares for your dreams and works every day to turn small steps into giant leaps. Ready to join the crew?

LOUISE HOUGHTON: Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. It's great to have you here with us, at the Ministerial Council.

[APPLAUSE]

Thank you. My name is Louise Houghton. I will be guiding you through this next event and the much awaited announcement of the 2022 ESA Astronaut Class. Whether you are here with us in Paris or watching online at home, I think you'll all agree that this is a very exciting time for the European Space Agency. We just heard the fantastic news that ESA member states have agreed to fund European Space activities with ?17 billion I think that deserves round of applause.

[APPLAUSE]

We've seen so many benefits from this funding in the past, and we're excited to see the ideas for future ESA space activities come to light. The light today, though, falls on the next class of ESA astronauts, and we'll be announcing who they are very shortly. Thousands of people submitted an application for this opportunity, and the selection process started in April of last year. There were many rounds, and then the final hurdle was a detailed interview with ESA's director general.

I think that this is the perfect opportunity to announce who those people are, and who better to help me announce those names than ESA's director general himself. Please, welcome to the stage, Josef Aschbacher.

[APPLAUSE]

Thank you so much for joining me on this day.

JOSEF ASCHBACHER: Thank you. So happy to be here.

LOUISE HOUGHTON: It's nice to see you.

JOSEF ASCHBACHER: Nice to see you.

LOUISE HOUGHTON: So what are the top criteria that you look for when you're selecting an astronaut?

JOSEF ASCHBACHER: Well, what do we look for? First of all, these are incredible people. You see some of the astronauts here in the room, and I know them pretty well now. And they really have talents that are quite incredible. I mean, they are unique, and I think, I really can say that they are unique in many ways.

Of course, you look for all the intellectual capability they have, all the manual capability, that they can make quick decisions under pressure usually, and make sure that they push the right buttons and not the wrong ones, and make sure that everything goes fine, but also, of course, we have gone through, I would say, a number of steps or tests and evaluation. We had about six big steps, big waves of reducing the 23-- almost 23,000 of applications down to a few. We will see them coming out-- coming up very soon. And there are-- one of the last hurdles is the medical test, and the very last hurdle is the director general officer.

LOUISE HOUGHTON: Was that fun?

JOSEF ASCHBACHER: Oh, that was so much fun, I tell you. Talking to these people and interviewing them together, of course, with some of my colleagues is really fun because you can probe them, of course, a bit under pressure. This is what astronauts like, to put them under pressure, and see how they react and whether they have all they need to be an astronaut. They need to be very special people.

LOUISE HOUGHTON: Well, we will announce who they are very shortly, but before we do, I'd love to hear a little bit more about what they're actually going to be doing once they're appointed.

JOSEF ASCHBACHER: Well, once they are appointed-- so, of course, first, we select them, and then, I think, there's a huge media frenzy on all the astronauts, and they will be very busy giving interviews and doing all kinds of interactions, but once they are appointed, we have actually two categories of astronauts-- one, we call career astronaut and the other one is astronauts in the reserve pool, which is, let me briefly explain. The career astronauts are the ones where we immediately give a contract to them and start working with them to have base training, to make sure that they get all the information needed, but also that they are getting ready for future missions.

The space training will be at the European Astronaut Center in Cologne, in Germany, but also in other places, and that lasts about a year, a bit more than a year. And then, there would be, as I say, ready for a future mission for which they have to be trained. And then, once a future mission is identified, of course, then the training for that mission will have to occur.

The astronauts in the research pool are astronauts that are astronauts, as the name say, so there is no difference. They are astronauts, but of course, they are not yet engaged by ESA directly through a permanent contract, but they will be available for future astronaut activities. They usually would continue that job in what they do, so they would be a physician or a fighter pilot or we have quite a different diversity of those. So they would continue in that job, but we would have an engagement with them. We will give them a short term contract so that they work with us, that we can interact with them regularly, and then, if opportunities arise, maybe later on, of course, they can then be put into full training for baseline training for astronauts and future missions.

LOUISE HOUGHTON: And different projects that--

JOSEF ASCHBACHER: And different projects.

LOUISE HOUGHTON: Well, we look forward to finding out who they are. I don't think we should keep anybody in suspense any longer. Do you? Do you want to do the honors and lift the curtain?

JOSEF ASCHBACHER: How do I lift the curtain?

LOUISE HOUGHTON: It's on your call.

JOSEF ASCHBACHER: OK, lift the curtain.

LOUISE HOUGHTON: A big round of applause.

[APPLAUSE]

Wow.

JOSEF ASCHBACHER: This is so much fun.

LOUISE HOUGHTON: Lots of smiles that we're seeing here on the stage. This is our 2022 Class of ESA Astronauts. I'd like to say some names and introduce them to you. So the first line, from left to right, we have Sophie Adenot, Pablo Álvarez Fernández, Meganne Christian, Anthea Comellini, Rosemary Coogan, Sara García Alonso, Raphael Liégeosis, and John McFall.

Josef, I can see, your smile is as big as theirs. How are you feeling right now?

JOSEF ASCHBACHER: I think my smile is even bigger. It's so beautiful to see them. I have seen them just a few weeks ago, we had the interview, and I'm very happy to see you, again. And it really makes me think of all the brilliance of these people. They have been very sharp in their responses to my difficult questions. I hope you didn't mind too much. I did tell you when-- in the interview that you may be invited to Paris, you may not know whether you are selected or not, but if you're going to Paris, I said, you will only find out whether you're a career astronaut or astronaut in reserve pool today, and this is what happened. So I think this was very much of a tension for you, but I thank you for being so brave and so wonderful.

LOUISE HOUGHTON: Yes, and we'll find out who is going to be a career astronaut in just a moment, but for now, I'll introduce the line at the back. We have, starting from left again, Andrea Patassa--

[APPLAUSE]

--Carmen Possnig, Amaud Prost, Amelie Schoenenwald, Marco Sieber, Ales Svoboda, Slawosz Uznañski, Marcus Wandt, and Nicola Winter.

I'm so happy to introduce each and every one of you. Huge congratulations to you for being at this stage here, today. It's so nice to have you with us, and thank you as well for you joining me on the stage. I'd like to invite you back a little bit later on, if that's OK.

JOSEF ASCHBACHER: Let me say one last thing.

LOUISE HOUGHTON: Yes, please.

JOSEF ASCHBACHER: I mean, if you look at these wonderful people here, of course, this election was about talent and about capabilities to be a fantastic astronaut, but I'm also very proud that it happens to be a very good distribution of genders. So we have almost 50% ladies in this group here, and I think that's also very important, and from very different countries. You will find out pretty soon from, which countries they come. I think this is something I'm very happy about.

LOUISE HOUGHTON: I'm happy about that, too.

JOSEF ASCHBACHER: Thank you.

LOUISE HOUGHTON: So thank you once again to Josef Aschbacher.

[APPLAUSE]

Well, I would now like to invite to the stage, ESA's Director of Human and Robotic Exploration, Dr. David Parker.

DAVID PARKER: Hi. Hello.

LOUISE HOUGHTON: Hello. Thank you for joining me. David, you were also involved with the selection of the astronauts that we see here today, and I know that it was important for you, to make sure that the final selection was very diverse. As Josef already mentioned, we have 50% women here on the stage, which is fantastic to see from, my point of view, but I know it was important for you to include astronauts with a physical disability.

DAVID PARKER: Yeah, this is very important to us. Diversity, it comes in many different ways. And the World Health Organization reckons that about 15% of the population live with some sort of disability and maybe 2% are really affected by it. And, of course, to be an astronaut is a very exclusive thing to be, but having a disability shouldn't rule you out, and that was really part of this very special project that we launched in this process.

LOUISE HOUGHTON: And I understand that the name is going to be called "parastronaut." Do you want to talk a bit more about where that name came from?

DAVID PARKER: Yeah, absolutely. So "para" means "para" as in parallel or alongside. It's like the Paralympics. It's the parallel process alongside the Olympic games, and the same way, the parastronaut has been selected, trained, developed, examined in every different way, in exactly the same process as all the other astronauts that you see here.

LOUISE HOUGHTON: Well, this is the first time that we are attempting to fly somebody with a physical disability to space. So I understand that there's probably quite a lot of uncharted waters ahead for you.

DAVID PARKER: Oh, yeah. Absolutely. I mean, we are pioneering something here. It's something we are really excited to be doing. We need to start a process by which we are going to work with the individual, understand how to adapt the space vehicle, maybe something aboard the Space Station, to ensure that they can live and work and do a meaningful mission aboard the Station.

LOUISE HOUGHTON: Of course. And I'd like to invite them to the stage, now. I'm going to go and grab a microphone so that we can have a few words from them. So I think, it's wise that we now announce our parastronaut for 2022, and that is John McFall.

[APPLAUSE]

Please, come forward. Congratulations, John. It's great to have you with us here at the front of the stage. I'd love to ask you a little bit more about why you applied to be an astronaut, first of all.

JOHN MCFALL: Well, when ESA announced they were looking for a candidate with a physical disability, I thought it was such an inspiring and exhilarating opportunity, and I looked at the person specification, and I thought, wow, this is really aspirational. This is a very brave and very bold thing to do. And with my broad scientific background and vast range of experiences, I felt compelled to try and help ESA answer this question-- can we get someone with a physical disability to do meaningful work in space?

LOUISE HOUGHTON: So what do you think that you can contribute to the Feasibility Study?

JOHN MCFALL: I think that I can bring lots of things the Feasibility Study, but I think, in particular, I can bring inspiration-- inspiration that science is for everyone, but inspiration that potentially space is for everyone.

LOUISE HOUGHTON: OK. And do you want to just talk a little bit more about the Feasibility Study, David, and what it hopes to achieve?

DAVID PARKER: Well, we're really interested to work with John, overcome the challenges that may exist, but also benefit the whole community and reach out and ensure that they come along the journey with us in preparing for John to fly.

LOUISE HOUGHTON: OK, great. Well, I'm sure that you have a lot more to say and that will be said in interviews later on, but for now, I would like to say thank you to both of you, thank you to Dave Parker-- ESA's Director of Human and Robotic Explorations. It was great to have you with us on stage. Thank you so much. And John, if you would like to just go and stand over there on the side of the stage, and we'll announce some of the career astronauts today. Thank you so much. To do those announcements, though, I would like to invite back to the stage, ESA's Director General Josef Aschbacher.

[APPLAUSE]

Thank you so much for coming back up on stage. Now, you talked already about the two different classes or two different selections that there is here today, either a career astronaut or somebody in the reserve. Is there anything more you'd like to add to that before we announce the names?

JOSEF ASCHBACHER: I mean, they are all astronauts, So I really would like to make this clear, that they are all equally capable of flying to space because we have done all the tests and all the pressure we have put on them. The only thing is that, we have not 20 or so flight opportunities, so we need to make a choice and start with one batch and maybe for the others, a bit later and look for other opportunities. So yes, they are all astronauts. Of course, with the career astronauts, we start working immediately. That means, early next year. We will offer them a contract or you have seen the contract already, to really start fully engaging them in all the base training that is needed and prepare them for future missions.

LOUISE HOUGHTON: Fantastic. Well, I think it's time that we announce our first one, then. Let's come into the middle of the stage a little bit more as we announce our first ESA Career Astronaut for 2022 is Sophie Adenot.

[APPLAUSE]

DAVID PARKER: Congratulations.

LOUISE HOUGHTON: Congratulations to you. Nice to have you with us. I'd love to hear a little bit more about yourself, your background, and how you came to be here today.

SOPHIE ADENOT: All right. So first of all, good afternoon to each of you. I understand that you've worked really hard for the past two days to get the incredible results that we've seen. Just for the antidote, we've worked pretty hard for the past year and a half to get here on this stage, and I think we're all very happy to be here.

So my background, I'm a career officer from the French Air and Space Force. I'm a helicopter test pilot, as well as an engineer. I worked at Airbus Helicopters to start with and then I flew rescue missions and transport mission throughout Europe. I have 3,000 flight hours and flew on 22 different helicopter types as a test pilot.

DAVID PARKER: Wow.

LOUISE HOUGHTON: Fantastic.

[APPLAUSE]

And how confident were you feeling in the run up to today's selection?

SOPHIE ADENOT: Well, I'm never confident. I mean, when you realize that there are so many candidates, you're never confident. You just make your way and hoping that the next step is going to work for you, but now we're very happy.

LOUISE HOUGHTON: OK. Well, congratulations to Sophie Adenot. Please, do go and join John over there on the side of the stage.

[APPLAUSE]

SOPHIE ADENOT: Thank you.

LOUISE HOUGHTON: And it now gives me great pleasure to announce the second ESA Career Astronaut of 2022 is Pablo Álvarez Fernández.

[APPLAUSE]

DAVID PARKER: Congratulations.

LOUISE HOUGHTON: Congratulations, Pablo. I'd love to hear a little bit more about your background and how you came to apply to be an astronaut.

PABLO ALVAREZ FERNANDEZ: So hello, everyone. I'm Pablo Álvarez, from Spain. I'm an air space engineer. I studied in the University of Lyon, in my hometown, and I hold a master's degree from the Warsaw University of Technology. I happen to have lived in several different countries across Europe, so I truly feel I'm European at heart.

Up to now, I've been working at Airbus as a structural engineer for several different aircrafts, but also as the ExoMars mechanical architect for the Rosalind Franklin Rover, and now I'm a project manager based in the head office in Madrid.

LOUISE HOUGHTON: And how was your experience with the final interview with Josef?

JOSEF ASCHBACHER: Be very honest.

PABLO ALVAREZ FERNANDEZ: It was excellent. It was excellent. Yeah, I could tell that he was happily enjoying interviewing every one of us. He was speaking at some point and he had to play the bad cop, but overall, my experience was great. And I'm very happy and delighted to be here with you all.

LOUISE HOUGHTON: We're delighted to have you here, as well. Huge congratulations to Pablo Álvarez Fernández.

[APPLAUSE]

So you play the bad cop, we just heard. What does playing the bad cop involve?

JOSEF ASCHBACHER: I like being the bad cop to really put pressure on them and see whether they really sustain. As you see, they all survived well.

LOUISE HOUGHTON: OK. Well, I'm going to quiz you about that later on. Let's announce the third astronaut, though, for the career selection today, and that is Rosemary Coogan.

[APPLAUSE]

JOSEF ASCHBACHER: Congratulations.

LOUISE HOUGHTON: Congratulations, Rosemary.

ROSEMARY COOGAN: Thank you very much.

LOUISE HOUGHTON: Yeah, would you like to follow in the same vein as the others and tell us a little bit about your background?

ROSEMARY COOGAN: Yeah. So my name is Rosemary Coogan, I'm 31 years old, and I'm European, but from the UK.

[LAUGHING]

LOUISE HOUGHTON: I like that.

ROSEMARY COOGAN: I didn't mean it like that.

[APPLAUSE]

I spent a few years as a Royal Naval Reserve during my studies, and then went on to work briefly in industry for software and robotics companies, before doing a PhD in astrophysics. And now, work with the French Space Agency Cadets.

LOUISE HOUGHTON: Oh, fantastic. And what do you look forward to doing the most in this position?

ROSEMARY COOGAN: Oh, well, it's, I mean, as Josef said, the training will start next year, and already that's going to be a fantastic experience, the survival training, the language learning, and I think ESA has put together a really fantastic exploration program, as we've heard about, at the Ministerial. And I'm really just looking forward to contributing what I can to that program.

LOUISE HOUGHTON: OK.

JOSEF ASCHBACHER: You have to thank all these ministers for preparing the grant for future flights for you.

ROSEMARY COOGAN: Yes, thank you very much.

LOUISE HOUGHTON: Well, a huge congratulations, once again, to Rosemary Coogan.

ROSEMARY COOGAN: Thank you.

LOUISE HOUGHTON: Well, we do have a fourth career astronaut to announce, and I'm happy to say that that is Raphael Liégeosis.

[APPLAUSE]

Congratulations, Raphael.

RAPHAEL LIEGEOIS: Thank you.

LOUISE HOUGHTON: All right. Well, following in the same vein as the others, would you like to give us a little bit more information about yourself?

RAPHAEL LIEGEOIS: Sure. So good afternoon, everyone. It is a pleasure to be here. I'm Raphael, from Belgium. My background is in biomedical engineering. I also did a PhD in neuroscience at the University of Liege in Belgium, and I completed that PhD in 2015. And since then, I have been working as a neuroscientist in various research institutes in Singapore, in the United States, and I am now a research and teaching fellow at the University of Geneva and at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, in Switzerland.

LOUISE HOUGHTON: Fantastic. And you applied for this opportunity 18 months ago. When you sent in that application, did you just forget about it, or did you hear kind of quite soon on? How was the application process for you?

RAPHAEL LIEGEOIS: Well, quite long. That's the same for all the candidates, I believe. So it was eight months in total, six steps, so roughly a couple of months between each step. But it was hard at times. We were waiting for an answer that was not coming, so that was hard for us, but also hard for the families, that I would like to thank also for supporting us and dealing with us when we were in these situations, but overall, it was a very great experience.

LOUISE HOUGHTON: OK. Well, congratulations to you, once again. Please, put your hands together for Raphael Liégeosis.

[APPLAUSE]

JOSEF ASCHBACHER: Congratulations.

LOUISE HOUGHTON: It must have been a very tough decision, I think, to select these career astronauts.

JOSEF ASCHBACHER: It was a very tough decision. I can tell you, there have been so many fantastic candidates, you see them here, but also many others. And for the ones who have applied and are not standing here, I really would like to say that, I'm pretty sure you are also wonderful. I hope you engage with ESA in the future. We have many other good jobs to offer. We would like to really stay in contact with you because this is something very important to us, but it was a tough decision, I can tell you.

LOUISE HOUGHTON: And we're so-- well, we do have one more career astronaut to announce today, and that is Marco Sieber.

[APPLAUSE]

MARCO SIEBER: Thank you very much.

LOUISE HOUGHTON: Congratulations, Marco.

JOSEF ASCHBACHER: Congratulations.

LOUISE HOUGHTON: Love to hear a little bit more about your background as well, please.

MARCO SIEBER: Yes. So I'm Marco Sieber from Switzerland, I'm 33 years old, and I'm a medical doctor specialized in emergency medicine, and currently, I'm doing a training in neurology-- sorry. And yeah, otherwise, I like everything that has to do with flying, paragliding, skydiving, so that's what I do.

LOUISE HOUGHTON: So you already like being up in the air.

MARCO SIEBER: Yeah.

LOUISE HOUGHTON: That's great to hear. What was the most challenging part of this selection process for you?

MARCO SIEBER: Yeah, I think, it was a really some kind of a roller coaster with not knowing what's going to happen next. So it was really hard and also for really tough questions as well, and also for my family and friends and my partner, so I would like to thank everyone for supporting me all the way. Thank you very much. Merci.

LOUISE HOUGHTON: Well, thank you for being here. Marco Sieber, everybody.

[APPLAUSE]

And that does conclude our Career Astronaut Selection today. Josef, it's been an amazing day for you and the European Space Agency. If you had to sum it all up in a nutshell, what would you say?

JOSEF ASCHBACHER: Oh, today was quite a day. I mean, there was a roller coaster for the astronauts, with not knowing until now what really happens. For me, I have to say, and this is for me representing really the European Space through the European Space Agency, there are two important things. Of course, the announcement of the astronauts is a highlight, which is so fantastic, but also our Ministerial Conference, I have to say, was quite, quote an important emotional moment, as well. Putting all this together, the future for a year and a half work, wonderful programs, which we are starting now with these commitments of our member states, and I think seeing that ESA is really working extremely well thanks to all the member states and all these contributions is so beautiful to see. And truly, thank you for that, from my side, once more.

LOUISE HOUGHTON: Thank you, and we look forward to hearing how it all unravels as the years and months go on. I know you already said some thanks, but I would also like to thank you for being on stage and helping me out here today. And I'd like to thank our audience, whether you're here with us in Paris or watching us online, for being so enthusiastic this afternoon.

Before we close this afternoon's event, though, we would like to have a group photo on stage with everybody, and then the astronauts and the ministers will be going into their separate offices for the interviews. We do ask that any of the journalists here, please be patient, and our media team will be coming to collect you and take you to them one-by-one.

For the group photo then, in just a minute, I'd love to invite the Class of 2009 Astronauts up to the stage, as long as all-- along with all of the ministers and Dr. David Parker, as well. And please, do use the steps on either side of the stage to come up onto the platform.

My name is Louise Houghton. It has been an absolute pleasure to host this momentous occasion here in Paris today. If you want to keep up-to-date with what's going on with our astronauts then, you can do that online at esa.int or of course, on social @esaastro2022.

All right. Have a great rest of your afternoon, everybody, and a safe journey home. Thank you very much.

[APPLAUSE]

Please, do come on stage to the photograph, everybody.

- First, astronauts.

[SIDE CONVERSATIONS]

- So no big surprise.

LOUISE HOUGHTON: Nice to see you.

- Good to see you. How have you been?

LOUISE HOUGHTON: I'm good. How are you?

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