Breaking Barriers: The Mission to Achieve Inclusivity in Space

By: Sarah Roberts
view of earth from outer space

Celebrities William Shatner and Michael Strahan made headlines for hitching a ride to space thanks to Jeff Bezos. Rumor has it that Leonardo DiCaprio, Angelina Jolie and James Cameron may be next.

As space tourism begins to take flight, those focused on inclusion are starting to explore whether it can also be an accessible experience.  The non-profit research organization AccessAstro is saying yes.

AccessAstro is taking people with disabilities on zero-gravity flights to learn what it will take to make space accessible for astronauts with disabilities. Its crews include people with disabilities like Eric Shear, an engineering student at the University of Florida, who is Deaf.

Shear went on two of AccessAstro’s parabolic flights, where he took part in an experiment on communicating in American Sign Language (ASL) in zero gravity. Shear has a personal ambition to become an astronaut and make space travel more inclusive, and he’s not alone. Now, more people are becoming interested in accessibility in space. Much like other environments with embedded inclusion, offering accessibility is showing potential benefits for all astronauts. 

Why aren’t there astronauts with disabilities? 

Until recently, government space agencies like NASA were the only players in the space travel game. The requirements for becoming an astronaut were strict, including physical health that was near-perfection. NASA is flooded with highly skilled applicants and can, therefore, cherry-pick those that meet its extreme standards.

However, whether those standards are necessary is more than debatable. In fact, those exclusive requirements might prevent progress for space travel and create more dangerous circumstances for astronauts. The experiments that AccessAstro is performing, and earlier research, indicate that astronauts with certain disabilities may have advantages. 

Why astronauts who are Deaf could have a potential advantage 

In the late 1950s, 11 men from Gallaudet University participated in experiments with NASA to study the effects of weightlessness on the human body. The participants were all Deaf and had inner ear problems. The men spent 12 days in a rotating chamber, took flights on the weightlessness-imitating “vomit comet” and spent time at sea in choppy water. As a result of their inner-ear conditions, the men didn’t experience motion sickness, which allowed NASA to perform its experiments.  

However, a lack of motion sickness isn’t the only advantage that people who are Deaf may have in space. Those who use ASL might be poised to communicate if the environment was too loud or inconducive to verbal communication.  

Additionally, AccessAstro has included people who don’t have legs on their flights, showcasing just what’s possible or relevant in a weightless environment. 

Regardless of specific disabilities, the consensus is that any accommodations made to make space travel accessible are likely to benefit all individuals regardless of disability.  

How accessibility in space would help all astronauts 

Chris Hadfield, a Canadian Space Agency astronaut and the former commander of the International Space Station, once went temporarily blind during a spacewalk.  The experience was a harrowing one as the environment was not equipped to support individuals who could not see. It was an example of a crisis that could happen to any astronaut. However, if the space station included tactile markings on the wall, they could have helped Hadfield, and anyone else navigate more effectively.

In the case of a power outage, or a fire that fills the room with smoke, an astronaut who is blind would be able to navigate to the source without the disorientation others may experience. Such complications aren’t just hypothetical. The ability to navigate without sight would have helped in 1997 when a fire on the Russian Mir space station caused smoke to fill the air and obscure the astronauts’ vision. That crew struggled to locate the extinguisher, placing them at greater risk and delaying their ability to put out the fire.

These examples are just a few of many instances where accommodating people with disabilities could make experiences better and safer for everyone. Such a phenomenon is common back on Earth as well, where the “curb-cut effect” continues to prove that accessibility solutions improve life for all. Making space travel accessible will likely lead to a plethora of innovations that could also have unexpected benefits.

As AccessAstro puts it, “If we can make space accessible, we can make any space accessible.”

Aspiring astronauts could change the game 

Shear and others involved with AccessAstro are getting more attention and are well-positioned to showcase how inclusive even an environment like space travel could be. Private space tourism companies are proving that it’s possible to safely travel to space, even for people who haven’t met the strict vetting that NASA astronauts must endure. 

While Verbit’s team hasn’t dipped its toes into space just yet, we understand the value of accessibility and inclusion for all spaces – physical and virtual. To learn more about how to support inclusion in everyday environments with tools like captioning and audio description, reach out.