ABOUT Mission: AstroAccess

Outer space is not just humanity’s future:

It's a call to rethink life on Earth today.

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Image Description: Photo of the Earth taken from space.
Credit: NASA/NOAA/GOES Project.

Mission: AstroAccess will launch a group of disabled scientists, veterans, students, athletes, and artists on a historic parabolic flight 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" will 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. AstroAccess Ambassadors will not only participate in a parabolic flight but will use their platform to act as public advocates for global disability access in STEM.

Two researchers float during a ZERO-G flight while holding on to a large rectangular experiment apparatus. This research was conducted by Carthage College. Credit: ZERO-G.
Image Description: Two researchers float during a ZERO-G flight while holding on to a large rectangular experiment apparatus. This research was conducted by Carthage College. Credit: ZERO-G.

The first parabolic flight mission will fly on ZERO-G on October 17, 2021, with the ultimate goal of flying one or more team members to space in the coming years. This project is being supported through the Whitesides Foundation and is part of the SciAccess Initiative, an international organization dedicated to advancing disability inclusion in STEM. The fiscal sponsor of the project is Yuri's Night, a non-profit space advocacy organization.

Anousheh Ansari (right), the first female private space explorer and keynote speaker at the SciAccess 2019 Conference, chats with Heather Tomko (left), public health researcher and 2018 Miss Wheelchair USA, and Anna Voelker (center).  Credit: SciAcces/Heather Taylor.

Image Description: Anousheh Ansari (right), the first female private space explorer and keynote speaker at the SciAccess 2019 Conference, chats with Heather Tomko (left), public health researcher and 2018 Miss Wheelchair USA, and Anna Voelker (center). Credit: SciAcces/Heather Taylor.

The team producing the flight is a world-class assembly of disability advocates, military veterans, space industry leaders, and medical experts. It includes Chief Medical Officer Dr. Erik Viirre, a world-renowned microgravity doctor who worked with Dr. Stephen Hawking on his groundbreaking ZERO-G microgravity flight; George Whitesides, the former Chief of Staff of NASA and CEO of Virgin Galactic; Dr. Sheri Wells-Jensen, an academic expert on disability and space; Anna Voelker, Executive Director of the SciAccess Initiative; Rachel Lyons, Executive Director of Space for Humanity; Tim Bailey, the world’s most experienced commercial parabolic flight director; and HR Zucker, a retired USAF rated aviator and DoD space veteran.
Professor Stephen Hawking floating during a ZERO-G flight in 2007. Hawking said of this experience, “For me, this was true freedom. People who know me well say that my smile was the biggest they'd ever seen. I was Superman for those few minutes." Credit: Steve Boxall/ ZERO-G.
Image Description: Professor Stephen Hawking floating during a ZERO-G flight in 2007. Hawking said of this experience, “For me, this was true freedom. People who know me well say that my smile was the biggest they'd ever seen. I was Superman for those few minutes." Credit: Steve Boxall/ ZERO-G.

Motivation

As a human race, our most intractable challenges—poverty, climate change, pandemic—happen on a global scale. Space exploration puts that scale into perspective and calls us to reimagine what divides and connects us as people. When we reached the moon and the world was able to see our pale blue dot from afar, we realized how important it was to protect it.
Space Removes Barriers between people. Now it time to remove the barriers from space.

We are dedicated to advancing disability inclusion in space exploration, not just for the benefit of marginalized communities, but for the benefit of all humankind. This project is our first step in the direction of a new reality, where disabled astronauts not only exist but are trusted crew members, essential to the mission. When disabled people have equitable access to all jobs, taking on humanity’s most complex tasks, perspectives change. Access to space changes the worldview not only of aspiring explorers, but of those that employ them, and most importantly, those that look up to them. By generating new opportunities for disabled scientists to succeed and by providing activists a platform, we have the power to inspire the next generation of scientists and world-changers.

Accessibility spurs innovation that benefits all users. Flight safety is always the paramount concern in spaceflight, and many current warning systems implement certain sensory signals for the notification and remediation of anomalies. However, safety systems directly reflect the design criteria; when criteria are re-thought to include a wider range of people and capabilities, these systems can be made safer overall. When we design environments, systems, and technologies for the broadest possible set of users, we not only expand inclusion but yield significant benefits for mainstream users. In an emergency in space, the first system to go offline can be the lighting. Making space systems accessible to blind astronauts would allow all crew members to operate in emergency lighting conditions through tactile and auditory systems. When seconds count, this added functionality could mean the difference between life and death. 

Disabled astronauts would have inherent strengths and advantages that could enhance mission success. Due to differences in the vestibular system, some deaf individuals are immune or resistant to motion sickness. NASA has known this since the 1950s, when 11 deaf men known as the “Gallaudet 11” participated in extensive research to help shape the future of human space exploration. During these experiments, NASA proved that deaf space flight participants would be more adaptable to the foreign gravitational environments, and yet there has never been a deaf astronaut. Hearing crew members would also benefit from being fluent in sign language as this would allow for non-verbal communication in any emergency situation that results in auditory anomalies. Universal design not only facilitates inclusion, it inherently results in new system redundancies and functionalities that would improve safety measures for all crewmembers. Visit this article for more information on “The Case for Disabled Astronauts.” 

NASA Gallaudet research participants chat in sign language while sitting in a zero gravity aircraft before take-off. credit: U.S. Navy/Gallaudet University collection.
Image Description: NASA Gallaudet research participants chat in sign language while sitting in a zero gravity aircraft before take-off. credit: U.S. Navy/Gallaudet University collection.

Goals

This project will help pave the way for the future of inclusive space exploration. In the United States, 26% of the population has a disability and yet people with disabilities make up only 8.4% of the country’s employed scientists and engineers (Source). Furthermore, only approximately 1% of U.S. doctorate degrees in science and engineering are held by people with disabilities (Source). We hope to see these numbers improve following our project. People with disabilities are the largest minority group in the world, yet this quarter of our population lacks equal access to the STEM fields. Meanwhile, companies that prioritize disability inclusion practices consistently out-perform their competitors (Source). By beginning to tap into this unrealized talent, we can serve both disabled communities and the STEM disciplines as a whole, enriching science and advancing its benefits for society by welcoming new perspectives into the field. If science is truly accessible to everyone, our world’s innovators and problem solvers will be the best of the best, not just the best of the non-disabled.

Mission: AstroAccess will allow the next generation of disabled scientists, students, athletes and artists to see that STEM work is truly possible for them. Women entering the space program sparked a steady increase of women in STEM that has continued to the present day (Source). When people with disabilities enter the space program, we expect the same to happen with disabled STEM students. As we give more disabled advocates platforms in STEM, we will see more disabled scientists. We can then expect more science consumers as more members of the public begin to see themselves reflected in scientists in the media. The inclusion of disabled personnel will necessitate changes in space habitats, equipment, policies, and procedures that will benefit everyone. Mission: AstroAccess will enable the initial stages of this research, collecting data crucial to the future of inclusive space exploration. 

For the inaugural flight in 2021, the mission will focus on basic operational tasks that will a) demonstrate the abilities of disabled crew members to work effectively in a microgravity environment and b) investigate minor changes that could be made to this environment in order to promote greater accessibility in the future. This may include tasks that investigate the following:

Physical Environment Accessibility

  • Can sound beacons be used for blind crew members to orientate themselves in 3D space?
  • How could tactile markers be used inside the plane cabin to support access for blind crew members?

Communication Accessibility

  • How is American Sign Language legibility impacted by floating in microgravity?
  • How will important safety cues, traditionally only shared verbally, be efficiently communicated to Deaf and hard of hearing crew members?

Safety Procedures

  • What emergency egress modifications are needed for crew members with disabilities?
  • Demonstrate that all crew members can perform basic safety and operational tasks (e.g. navigate to oxygen masks)

General Microgravity Research

  • While our inaugural flight will focus more closely on the above, Mission: AstroAccess crew members on this or future flights may carry out general microgravity experiments that require limited materials. This supports our goal to demonstrate that disabled crew members can perform the same microgravity experiments as their non-disabled peers.

Ultimately, this project will serve all, not just benefiting those with disabilities, but making it so that the ideas, experiences, perspectives, and strengths of disabled students, scientists, and space explorers can benefit the world.

Join us as we take this next step towards advancing access to space for all.

Image Description: Large group of smiling students perform a research experiment while floating inside the ZERO-G plane. Credit: ZERO-G.
Image Description: Large group of smiling students perform a research experiment while floating inside the ZERO-G plane. Credit: ZERO-G.