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People with disabilities take to the sky

A Stanford occupational therapist and a computer science student harness their experiences to help bring people with disabilities to space.

For Mary Cooper, the weightlessness of zero gravity is like having a superpower: "You can do a pushup with just a pinky finger."

Cooper, a master's student in the aeronautical and astronautical engineering program at Stanford University, first experienced zero gravity in October 2021 with an organization that takes people with physical disabilities into space. She's had a prosthetic leg since she was less than a year old, but sans gravity, she moves unencumbered, a feeling she rarely experiences and wants to share with others.

"Space is the next frontier - and if you want to fully explore it, it needs to be accessible to more than just a slight percent of the population," Cooper said.

The flight Cooper took was run by Mission: AstroAccess, a project of the SciAccess Initiative, an organization that promotes equity and inclusion in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math. The Stanford Medicine Alliance for Disability Inclusion and Equity, or SMADIE, has collaborated with the organization for two years.

Flight participants, or "ambassadors," don't always want to be extraordinary, said Jody Greenhalgh, a SMADIE board member and an occupational therapist at Stanford Health Care who doubles as an occupational therapist for the flight program. "They want to be ordinary. They want to have the same thing that other people have, and they should be at the table." Or beyond the horizon.

In her daily job, Greenhalgh helps patients adapt to life with a new disability. That might mean showing them how to transfer from a wheelchair into a car or to cook with a prosthetic arm, among other tasks.

"I'm working with people who are ill and injured, and I help them move toward a new life path," Greenhalgh said. Greenhalgh uses those same skills to help outfit space vessels to better support people with disabilities. 

Next frontier

To prepare a space craft to support use by all people, Greenhalgh works with ambassadors on figuring out what accommodations ensure their safety and ease of use of the spacecraft, adapting it to fit their needs. She's been with the program since 2021 and said that accessibility on the ground and in the air needs to be a top priority.

During a flight, about a dozen people with disabilities board a plane that produces zero gravity by repeatedly flying 25,000 feet above the ground and falling for 20 to 30 seconds. The goal is for the participants to experience different gravities (alongside zero gravity, some flights mimic lunar gravity; some, microgravity; and some, Martian gravity) and evaluate how the vessels could be modified to accommodate people of varying abilities.

The changes are also intended to benefit able-bodied astronauts, said Greenhalgh, particularly if something goes awry mid-mission. For example, Chris Hadfield, a NASA astronaut, was struck temporarily blind by his visor's antifog treatment during a spacewalk repairing a vessel in 2001, according to media reports. He was fortunately able to fix the malfunction, but had it continued, he would have needed vision assistance onboard the space craft.

"We're at an awesome point in the commercial space industry when we're able to jump in and affect design changes with the increase in private space ventures," Cooper said. "We can avoid the cost of retrofitting and make sure that everyone has a chance to go to space."

Design changes

On her second flight, Cooper was more than just a participant; she also helped lead the crew's adaptions. Greenhalgh, Cooper and the team tested a thermoregulation suit that fits underneath clothes to keep ambassadors warm when the spacecraft is cold and to prevent nausea. In creating a fit for paraplegic participants, Greenhalgh helped develop custom waistbands and postural supports that help dock ambassadors to any side of the craft during take-off and when in zero gravity. The supports allowed for free arm movement and stabilization of the body, stopping free float, and modified straps also secured the legs. For two ambassadors born without legs and with partial arms, they are experimenting with a way to stabilize their torsos with Velcro and magnets, so their prosthetic arms aren't hindered. The team also built flexibility into space suits to accommodate prosthetics, making the arm and leg materials adjustable in length.

Additionally, the flights include Braille and specialized lighting systems that help blind and deaf ambassadors follow cockpit commands. The research team found that limited-sighted individuals who use Braille to get emergency equipment information understand it faster than people with unimpaired vision using their eyesight to read.

Although Greenhalgh is excited to see advances in space access, she maintains that there's still much work to do on Earth.

She recalled one flight where wheelchair lifts weren't available for the ambassadors, leading the team to adapt a food truck mechanical lift with a railing to gain access to the space craft.

"We still don't have full access for all on Earth," said Greenhalgh. "There should be access for all everywhere: every ground, every sky."

Photo by jim

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