UK surgeon named world's first astronaut with a disability

Decorated doctor and athlete John McFall lost his right leg after a motorcycle accident at age 19.

The European Space Agency

The European Space Agency on Wednesday selected the world’s first astronaut with a disability. John McFall, whose right leg was amputated at age 19, is the first recruit for a new program investigating accommodations for astronauts with disabilities.

The agency called for applications in March 2021, seeking people with disabilities who could pass stringent physical and psychological testing but were limited by a lack of hardware accommodations. The program will investigate the changes and costs required to send astronauts with disabilities into space. The ESA chose McFall out of 257 entrants, and describes him as the world’s first “parastronaut.” And next spring, he will enter the 12-month training program at the European Astronaut Centre in Cologne, Germany.

“I’ve always been hugely interested in science generally, and space exploration has always been on my radar,” said the 41-year-old McFall on Wednesday. “But having had a motorcycle accident when I was 19, like wanting to join the armed forces, having a disability was always a contraindication to doing that.”

After McFall’s accident and amputation, he learned to run again and won a bronze medal in the 100-meter dash at the 2008 Paralympic Games. In addition, he earned several medical degrees and was a Foundation Doctor in the British National Health Service from 2014 to 2016. McFall currently works as a trauma and orthopedic specialist in South England.

“In early 2021 when the advert for an astronaut with a physical disability came out,” said McFall, “I read the person specifications and what it entailed, and I thought, ‘Wow, this is such a huge and interesting opportunity.’ And I thought that I would be a very good candidate to help ESA answer the question they were asking: ‘Can we get someone with a physical disability into space?’ And I felt compelled to apply.”