Why Aren’t Disabled Astronauts Exploring Space?

Journeying into the future will require embracing disability—and recognizing its power in our changing world.
Collage of Earth a person in a wheelchair and Braille
Photo-illustration: WIRED Staff; Getty Images

Today, young people are becoming disabled in record numbers with all the various impacts of long Covid, which is estimated to affect between 8 and 25 percent of people who have been infected. The disabled future is coming to pass now, and we need to create inclusive and accessible environments for all kinds and ages of disabled people to deal with it.

Beyond Covid, pollution is increasing rates of environmentally produced disability—​higher levels and lower onset ages of different types of cancers, as well as rising rates of asthma, chemical sensitivities, and autoimmune disabilities, some of which can come from smog and conditions of poor air quality. The future is also disabled for the planet itself. Sunaura Taylor, a fellow disabled scholar and an animal and environmental activist, writes powerfully of the “disabled ecologies” that constitute the landscapes we have impaired. Her case study is the Superfund site in Tucson, Arizona, which contaminated local groundwater and, 40 years later, is still affecting the land and surrounding communities. She thinks disabled people have important insight into how to live, age, and exist with disabled ecologies. She reminds us that we can’t just get rid of our land, our environment. We have to learn how to live in a world we have disabled.

Even with hopeful futures like that of space travel, we can expect the production of disability. Space is already disabling for humans. Just as the built environment on Earth is not suited for disabled bodies, space as an environment is not suited to any human bodies. Every astronaut comes back from the low gravity of space with damage to their bones and eyes—​and the longer they are off Earth’s surface, the worse the damage. Some things can be restored over time, but some changes are long-​lasting. These realities are absent from futurist writing about technology, which is framed as simply magicking away the disabling effects of space travel.

This is why technofuturists’ discussions of “The End of Disability” are so silly. Disability isn’t ending; we’re going to see more and newer forms of disability in the future. This doesn’t mean that all medical projects aimed at treating disease and disability are unpromising. But we need to prepare for the disabled future: becoming more comfortable with other people’s disabilities, accepting the fact that we ourselves will eventually be disabled (if we aren’t already), learning to recognize and root out ableism—​these are all moves toward building a better future for everyone. Planning for the future in a realistic way requires embracing the existence, and indeed the powerful role, of disabled people in it. We must rid ourselves of technoableism—the harmful belief that technology is a “solution” for disability—and instead pay overdue attention to the ways that disabled communities make and shape the world, live with loss and navigate hostility, and creatively adapt.

The promise of disabled space travel is a particularly potent case study. Deaf-​and-​disabled-​led literary journal The Deaf Poets Society asked us to dream in 2017 with their #CripsInSpace special issue. Guest edited by Alice Wong and Sam de Leve, this issue was announced with a video of de Leve showing us how they are specially suited for space—since, as wheelchair users, they were already trained to push off of kitchen counters and walls to get where they wanted to go. They also pointed out that while most kids can dream of being astronauts, disabled people are usually given fewer options, even early in life. So they asked us to dream, write, and create art: The issue features short stories, prose, and poetry in which people think about how they are better suited for going to the stars.

Others have also considered disabled space travel and disabled futures. In 2018, blind linguist Sheri Wells-​Jensen (now the 2023 Baruch S. Blumberg NASA/Library of Congress Chair in Astrobiology, Exploration, and Scientific Innovation) made “The Case for Disabled Astronauts” in Scientific American. She wrote about how useful it would be to have a totally blind crew member aboard. Spacesuits would need to be better designed to transmit tactile information, but a blind astronaut would be unaffected by dim or failed lighting or vision loss from smoke, and would be able to respond unimpeded, unclouded, to such an emergency—​Wells-​Jensen refers to a problem on the Mir where they couldn’t find the fire extinguisher when the lights went out.

Two discussions at the Library of Congress about uncertain space futures took place in 2018, first an “un-​conference” called Decolonizing Mars and, a few months later, a series of panel discussions and performances on Becoming Interplanetary. These events, organized by astronomer Lucianne Walkowicz (who has since founded the Just Space Alliance), fostered conversations from a wide variety of perspectives on how our narratives about space center “the right stuff” (to borrow the title of Tom Wolfe’s novel) in ways that are sometimes problematic when it comes to recruiting, dreaming, and planning for space. The “stuff” that is taken to be “right” is usually privileged, masculine, from dominant cultures, and extremely abled (there are stringent physical “fitness” requirements for astronauts). Recruiting for space has always held up certain bodies as better than others, in ways that don’t at all map onto what might actually work best. During the Decolonizing Mars event, as we sat in a smaller group discussion circle, I learned that short women with larger thighs do better at not passing out when they pull high numbers of g’s as fighter pilots; their brains are closer to their hearts, so the additional blood flow helps them remain conscious, and their larger butts/thighs seem to absorb some impact. Yet typically, the “best” fighter pilot looks like Val Kilmer as Iceman in Top Gun.

Later I offered the example of the Gallaudet Eleven—​eleven Deaf men recruited from Gallaudet University in the 1950s and ’60s for a NASA study of motion sickness. They went through astronaut training and many different tests. Congenitally deaf people don’t get motion sickness, and NASA simply wanted to know how nondisabled astronauts could avoid motion sickness too. The Deaf men were never considered for astronaut candidacy, however, despite their ability to avoid motion sickness. Other participants, like Brenda J. Child, Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, and Brian Nord, highlighted the ways in which our space rhetoric perpetuates narrative structures that have done a lot of harm—​ideas about frontiers, claiming planets and territory, mining and extraction from other planets, and colonization. As they pointed out, the continued use of these terms restricts how we imagine space, framing it simply as a continuation of colonization and capitalism—​the very ways of thinking about space, ownership, and land that are so deeply disabling the Earth.

Sheri Wells-​Jensen has now been on two zero-​g parabolic flights and knows what it would feel like to be in space. She and others put her case for disabled astronauts out into the world, and onto the right desks—​and she became part of the first flight of Mission: AstroAccess. The goal of AstroAccess is to include disabled people in space exploration. Their first mission flew with 12 disabled “ambassadors” aboard in 2021, and they flew again in late 2022. To me, this disabled zero-​g flight was huge news, just as Stephen Hawking’s similar zero-​g flight had been in 2007. However, the AstroAccess flight made less of a public splash; I only saw it reported because I follow disability-​specific news.

The thing about space flight, space stations, and the type of exploratory travel we are talking about in space is that it’s all uncertain; we don’t know what skills might be needed. (This is true on Earth, too, just easier to imagine off-​surface.) And all the necessary space infrastructure—​any aircraft, spacecraft, or station—​is something we build. (We could certainly be building regular airplanes to be more accessible to disabled people already. Wheelchair users are particularly degraded, restricted, forgotten, and excluded with our current airplane setups.) We already know retrofitting sucks. Why not build things to be as inclusive as possible now instead of trying to fix them later? Finally, since we are going into an environment that we were not brought up in, it doesn’t matter whether astronauts are nondisabled: Again, we are all disabled in space. Our environmental niches are all on Earth, and our capabilities are all Earth-​related. Disabled people don’t have the same disadvantages in space that they may have here on Earth—​especially if we work to avoid creating or re-​creating disadvantages in how we build and plan for space.

My disabled friends can imagine ways that we would be well suited for space or space for us; we can all give different reasons why either our bodies would feel better in space (less gravity weighing our pain on us) or why our bodies would be superior for space flight or travel. My friend Mallory Kay Nelson is the cleverest here, because she’s well adapted for pooping in space. In case you don’t know, it’s very difficult to poop in space—​both in terms of physical properties and engineering-​wise. Astronauts have to train to use specialized toilets (there is a whole toilet-​engineering team with each space agency), and the toilets are finicky and have a history of breaking. Because pooping is so complicated, Mallory has suggested that NASA should only be recruiting people with ostomies—​people who have openings in their abdomens (called stomas) to excrete waste using ostomy bags. All the engineering and work that currently goes into space toilets is only necessary because no one has an ostomy!

I’m puzzled why we aren’t actively recruiting for some types of disability here. Sheri Wells-​Jensen has already given us the case for the edge that blind people would have on crews, and Sam de Leve, as part of #CripsInSpace, discussed the edge that manual wheelchair users would have moving in space. The Gallaudet Eleven were considered superior, and were studied for that reason! I got to lead a colleague’s class at one point ​where we ended up talking about how people who have experienced some types of mental illness might be better suited in some ways to monitor themselves and others around them for certain emotional and physiological responses to space. They might also help come up with ways to manage conditions like seasonal depression, which could be a huge concern if we traveled farther away from the sun. We already know what our slight tilt of the Earth means for mental health in the far north and far south of our globe when it comes to higher rates of suicide and depression, and we should be attuned to this in how we plan for space too.

We need to be wary of technoableism—​technology development and marketing that makes it seem like disability is a big, bad thing that needs to be downplayed or eliminated. Most of our supposed experts about disability are nondisabled people, who don’t know what it’s like to be the object of ableism, of design made at you rather than for you, of future imaginings that snuff you out of existence, of scrutiny around every one of your choices, your behavior, and your being. This is why we need to look to intersectional, cross-​disability communities for expertise, and for ​creative visions of a future that cuts no one out. We need to make the world more hospitable to more ways of being and existence, not just by heeding disabled expertise but by loosening our ideas about what “the right stuff” is, and by insisting there is no wrong stuff. We should be actively anticipating all the stuff—​and planning that way.

Excerpted from Against Technoableism: Rethinking Who Needs Improvement. Copyright (c) 2023 by Ashley Shew. Used with permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.