LONDON — John McFall is no stranger to challenges. Passionate about sprinting in his youth, he had to learn to run again after losing his leg in a motorcycle accident at 19.
He learned well: at the Paralympic Games in Beijing in 2008, he won the bronze medal in the 100 meters. Not content with this, he later trained as an orthopedic surgeon.
Mr. McFall is now aiming even higher – much, much higher.
On Wednesday, the European Space Agency named Mr McFall as one of its newest recruits, making him the world’s first physically disabled astronaut, the agency said.
He joins 16 other new faces from across Europe, chosen from around 22,500 applicants as the agency sought to diversify its pool of astronauts in its first hiring campaign in more than a decade.
“I can provide inspiration,” Mr. McFall, 41, said at the unveiling of the cohort on Wednesday. “The inspiration that science is for everyone,” he added, and that “potentially, space is for everyone.”
Tim Peake, who became the European Space Agency’s first British astronaut in 2008, said the recruitment of Mr McFall was “absolutely groundbreaking”.
“He’s really going to push the envelope,” Mr Peake said. “It paves the way for astronauts with future disabilities to do so as well.”
Along with Mr. McFall’s selection, efforts to broaden the profile of recruits have borne other fruit: the last time, in 2008, the agency selected just one woman, Samantha Cristoforetti from Italy, to join the program . The other five chosen were men. This year, eight of the 17 successful candidates were women.
But the agency acknowledged that the lack of ethnically diverse applicants was disappointing.
David Parker, director of human and robotic exploration at the European Space Agency, cited the problem in comments to the BBC.
“We have to think about it and think about why it happened,” he said.
The recruits will soon begin a 12-month basic training program at the European Astronaut Center in Germany.
In an interview published by the European Space Agency, Mr McFall said his selection had been “quite a whirlwind experience”.
“As an amputee,” he said, “I never thought being an astronaut was a possibility.”
However, it may be some time before Mr. McFall is launched into orbit.
He will soon undertake a “feasibility project” to assess how physical disability could affect space travel and how any problems could be overcome. Once this study gives him the green light, he can participate in any space mission.
“We have to go through astronaut training and figure out what a physical disability is that makes it difficult and overcome those obstacles, so that adds an extra layer of complexity,” McFall said in the interview with the ‘agency.
A father of three, he joked in the agency’s interview that he was looking for a career change.
“I realized I couldn’t be an athlete all my life, I probably needed to get a good job,” he said.
The European Space Agency, headquartered in Paris, was established in 1975 and has around 2,200 employees, although only a select few are astronauts. The organization is financed by tax contributions from each of the 22 Member States.
Although the European Space Agency’s $6.75 billion budget last year was significantly lower than NASA’s $23.3 billion allocation for the same period, the organization has made leaps and bounds in recent times, including developing the European Service Module – the unit that helps propel NASA’s Orion capsule around the moon.
“This is an extraordinary time for human spaceflight and for Europe,” David Parker, director of human and robotic exploration at the European Space Agency, said in a statement on Wednesday.
“We are at the forefront of human space exploration,” he added.