Eric Ingram typically moves through the world on his wheelchair. The 31-year-old chief executive of SCOUT Inc., a smart satellite components company, was born with Freeman-Sheldon Syndrome, a rare condition that affects his joints and blocked him from his dream of becoming an astronaut. He applied and was rejected, twice.
But onboard a special airplane flight this week, he spun effortlessly through the air, touching nothing. Moving around, he found, was easier in the simulated zero-gravity environment where he needed so few tools to help.
While simulating lunar gravity on the flight — which is about one-sixth of Earth’s — he discovered something even more surprising: for the first time in his life, he could stand up.
“It was legitimately weird,” he said. “Just the act of standing was probably almost as alien to me as floating in zero gravity.”
He was one of 12 disabled passengers who swam through the air aboard a parabolic flight in Southern California last Sunday in an experiment testing how people with disabilities fare in a zero-gravity environment. Parabolic flights, which fly within Earth’s atmosphere in alternating upward and downward arcs, allow passengers to experience zero gravity for repeated short bursts, and are a regular part of training for astronauts.
The flight was organized by AstroAccess, a nonprofit initiative that aims to make spaceflight accessible to to all. Although about 600 people have been to space since the beginning of human spaceflight in the 1960s, NASA and other space agencies have long restricted the job of astronaut to a minuscule slice of humanity. The American agency initially only selected white, physically fit men to be astronauts and even when the agency broadened its criteria, it still only chose people that met certain physical requirements.
This blocked the path to space for many with disabilities, overlooking arguments that disabled people could make excellent astronauts in some cases.
But the rise of private spaceflight, funded by billionaires with the support of government space agencies, is creating the possibility of allowing a much wider and more diverse pool of people to make trips to the edge of space and beyond. And those with disabilities are aiming to be included.
The participants in Sunday’s AstroAccess flight argue that accessibility issues must be considered now — at the advent of private space travel — rather than later, because retrofitting equipment to be accessible would take more time and money.
The Federal Aviation Administration is prohibited from creating safety regulations for private spaceflights until October 2023. Initiatives like AstroAccess are aiming to guide the way that government agencies think about accessibility on spaceflights.
“It’s crucial that we’re able to get out ahead of that regulatory process and prevent misinformation or lack of information or lack of data from making bad regulation that would prevent someone with disability flying on one of these trips,” Mr. Ingram said.
The group also hopes that making everything accessible from the get-go could lead to new space innovations that are helpful for everyone, regardless of disability.