On a cold November evening outside his local pub in the seaside town of Portsmouth, John McFall, sat with his brother-in-law, saw he had a missed call on his phone. He excused himself and moved somewhere quieter to return the call from an unknown number in Paris — a call he had been expecting for weeks.
At this point in his life, McFall had already been on a remarkable journey from battling through adversity when he lost his right leg above the knee following a motorcycle accident when he was 19, to becoming a bronze medallist at the 2008 Paralympics in Beijing, to then becoming a talented orthopedic doctor.
Now, the news of his latest career change was just a phone call away as he hurried to dial the number. You do not, after all, want to keep the director general of the European Space Agency (ESA) waiting.
The call did not last long. « John, I’m pleased to tell you we have considered your application and you’ve been successful, » director general Josef Aschbacher told him. McFall, it would be announced at a ceremony in Paris, was to be one of 16 people selected as the ESA’s newest class of astronauts. It also meant the breaking of a glass ceiling: He was to become the world’s first disabled astronaut in the 64-year history of modern human space exploration.
He was also, as you would expect, dumbstruck.
McFall returned to his seat and raised a glass with his brother-in-law, taking a moment « to reflect. » What would his 19-year-old self think of all this?
He thought about his mantra, which comes from a line his dad told him shortly after his accident in September 2000, while on a gap year in Thailand, and the frustrating months of recovery that followed.
He can still recall vivid memories of those dark moments. There was the night in the amputee rehabilitation wing of Roehampton hospital where he couldn’t sleep amid his deep sobbing. « The only thing I could think of doing was putting pen to paper, » McFall says. « I had my photo album from the travels I had just come back from, so I flicked to the page at the back and I drafted this poem. » He titled it « Opportunity. »
The final four lines read:
« And as my tears dash this page they are not of sadness, regret, despair nor guilt,
« But madness, to have overlooked the fact that my heart is still beating,
« And that from behind the doors for which I am now reaching,
« Opportunity arises. »
The poem summarized his attitude to his newly acquired disability and the situation he found himself in. « It wasn’t the end of my life as a person with two legs, it was just the beginning of my life as a person with one leg, » he says. « But it was very much my responsibility to open those doors. They were ajar, and it was purely my responsibility to open them and walk through them. »
He took that energy and fire and used it to become a Paralympian. At the Beijing Games in 2008, he won bronze in the 100m (T42). His friends and family were on hand to provide close support, too. That Christmas his dad bought him an atlas, perhaps to remind him there was still a life of adventure to be had and, on the inside page, he wrote a line that McFall now regards an « unconscious mantra. »
It read: « Son, always go the extra mile. Life will reward you. »
All of those thoughts flowed through McFall’s head as he sat in the pub, a man now heading for space. The ESA application itself had been a serious undertaking. He started it in February 2021 as he worked long days re-deployed to the ITU (intensive therapy unit) as COVID-19 gripped his hospital, when McFall received a message from a close friend and consultant. « His words were something like: ‘John, they’re looking for Paralympians to be astronauts. You should apply.' » McFall recalls.
The consultant had heard all about McFall’s life during long shifts at the hospital. It was the first time in 13 years that the ESA had hired a new intake of astronauts, and it seemed impossible to pass up. McFall thought it sounded ridiculous, but he browsed the personality specifications which listed traits such as: « good in hostile environments, » « excellent communicator, » an « ability to process large quantities of information, » and wondered if maybe he would be perfect. He had a medical degree and the required experience. Why not? he thought.
Time is precious for McFall, who is a father to three young children, and what came next would be a huge commitment. He was put through his paces in an extensive six-stage process that included an eight-hour day of psychomotor and memory tests in Hamburg, Germany, as well as large panel interviews with former astronauts and senior ESA executives at their base in Paris. In addition, there was a one-on-one sit down with Aschbacher, himself.
In the interviews, the psychologists wanted to know how he would respond in uncomfortable situations, and whether he had really thought of the bigger picture. He was hit with questions such as: « You’re talking to a group of 10-year-old kids. How do you tell them that you’re going to space but might not come back? »
They also asked: « It uses millions of tons of carbon dioxide when part of the space program is earth observation and monitoring climate change … How do you justify that? Do you feel comfortable with that on a personal level? »
McFall says: « Largely speaking, it was interview-style questions asking you difficult questions but relying on your responses as an individual rather than your knowledge of a specific subject area. »
Clearly, he says, they were happy with his answers. Now must come the task of sending him into space. Starting in April, McFall will work with ESA and NASA on a feasibility test that will be designed to identify whether it is possible for him to complete a mission to the International Space Station. The issue is it has never been done before.
As of right now, the answer to the feasibility test is that they don’t know. « You could probably split the test into three distinct parts, » McFall says. « What are the difficulties of being an amputee will cause undertaking some of the training tasks on Earth, whether be basic training or pre-mission or mission-specific tasks. The second part: What are the difficulties of putting me in a spacecraft? Depending on what spacecraft or platform I’m launched on, what are the difficulties, if any, that could cause me issues? Does the spacecraft need to be adapted? And then you have the third part in low Earth or beyond.
« I want to be involved, I want to be part of the team and do spacewalks and maintain the equipment outside. I want to do everything that all the other astronauts do and contribute to the team. I’m not there as a token or a space tourist. »
Or, as he explains, as a representative of the many physically disabled people around the world. McFall recognizes he has a chance to try and move disability up the agenda for employers, but he’s careful about describing his role in it.
« I am slightly conscious that I am not representative of the entire disabled population. I have a very straight-forward, static disability, there are people out there with more complex disabilities, » he explains.
« It’s important to recognize that this is a small step in addressing a larger question of inclusivity in all realms of employment of people with disabilities. So this is not ‘The John Show,’ this is a stepping stone to push the envelope get people talking about disability more, because the more people talk about it the less stigma it has… the more opportunities in life they will have. »
The new class of astronauts were announced last week at a ceremony in Paris. On stage, McFall beamed and, when passed a microphone, promised he had a lot to offer in the ESA’s attempt to get someone with a physical disability into space.
« The idea is that I am an astronaut, like all the other astronauts and cosmonauts, undertaking scientific research in space, maintaining the spacecraft inside and out, and being on exactly the same schedule and payroll and working alongside my fellow astronauts, » McFall says .
« I guess it’s like being a doctor — I’m not a paradoctor. I’m a doctor, and it will be the same thing; I’m an astronaut. »