UND to participate in study on feasibility of sending astronauts with physical disabilities into space
De Leon: Project shows tremendous level of trust between NASA, UND
GRAND FORKS, N.D. — The University of North Dakota's space studies department will partner with NASA and the European Space Agency to study the feasibility of sending astronauts with physical disabilities into space.
Pablo de Leon, chair of UND’s Department of Space Studies, said NASA’s research partnership with UND on such an important topic is a testament to the prestige of the university's space studies department.
“What is significant to me is the trust NASA puts in UND compared with other top tier institutions such as MIT,” said de Leon. “The training we provide is very well respected.”
The ESA, a consortium of space professionals representing 22 European nations, petitioned NASA to conduct research on the feasibility of sending “para astronauts” into space, meaning those suffering from physical disabilities that would otherwise preclude them from space travel. According to de Leon, the ESA partnered with NASA, and by extension UND for this research, because the ESA does not possess human-rated spacecraft to conduct simulations.
De Leon said the study will determine whether NASA and the ESA can expand the pool of talent they can recruit from.
“These individuals are highly qualified and educated astronauts,” said de Leon. “Their only barrier to visiting space is their disability. However, NASA needs to know if it is safe for them to travel using existing spacecraft.”
De Leon cited safety protocols, such as the ability to evacuate a spacecraft expeditiously in the event of an emergency, as factors the study will consider. Additionally, two of the spacecraft being tested for the study — the Boeing CST 100, and the SpaceX dragon capsule — are extremely cramped, making limited mobility a potential challenge for the para astronauts in carrying out their duties.
“If the spacecraft catches on fire before launch for instance, there is a specialized capsule that allows astronauts to escape,” said de Leon. “The ability of the para astronauts to use this capsule and the amount of time it takes them to evacuate, are all factors we must examine in this study.”
Another essential aspect of para astronauts’ ability to safely travel to space is their space suit. UND’s space suit lab is utilizing innovative technology such as 3D printing and body scanning, to design spacesuits which correspond to the research subjects’ unique physical characteristics.
The study is initially slated to run for a year, but de Leon says NASA is open to extending it past this timeframe. Simulations will be conducted at NASA’s Kennedy and Johnson Space Centers, as well as at UND’s space simulator lab.