It’s Time to Rethink Who’s Best Suited for Space Travel

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It’s Time to Rethink Who’s Best Suited for Space Travel

Take, for example, people who use ostomy bags. Right now, pooping in space is actually an important technical challenge. During takeoff, landing, and spacewalks, astronauts wear diapers. While in the space station, they use a toilet that requires a fair amount of precision and training to use. Astronauts have told all kinds of stories about rogue poop, or situations in which the toilet has backed up or generally gone awry. In 2008, NASA spent $19 million on a Russian toilet for the International Space Station. None of this would be an issue for an astronaut with an ostomy bag. “I could plug into the wall and just empty the container that’s been collecting,” says Mallory K. Nelson, a disability design specialist who uses an ileostomy bag—a pouch that connects to her intestine and collects waste. “I’ve moved the output location of poop, which creates a lot more flexibility in the kind of systems I can have. I could attach it to a space suit.”

All the various devices and ways of moving the body in space are likely more familiar to people with disabilities than to able-bodied people.

Or consider movement in space. You’ve certainly seen videos of astronauts zipping around the space station using their arms and legs to push off surfaces and direct their motion. This is a type of movement that people who use wheelchairs and other mobility aids are already familiar with. In fact, the various devices and ways of moving the body in space are likely more familiar to people with disabilities than to able-bodied people. “We move our bodies in so many different ways, and the disabled community has an exuberant amount of options,” says Nelson, who is an amputee and who has used crutches, a wheelchair, a scooter, and a prosthetic to get around. Nelson even coined a term for this recently: transmobility, the idea that there are lots of ways to get around besides putting one foot in front of the other.

Nelson also points out that most astronauts have no prior experience relying on technology for their movement and lives, whereas people with disabilities do so every day. In a space suit, for a space walk, an astronaut has to be trained in how to move their body in unison with a piece of technology. They have to get used to the idea that, if that technology should fail, they could be in grave danger. This, again, is an experience people like Nelson live with every day. “I’m always moving my body in motion with another object. That’s all we do,” Nelson says.

Or take blind astronauts. In a piece for Scientific American, Sheri Wells-Jensen lays out the case for designing spaceships for blind space travelers:

“After all, in a serious accident, the first thing to go might be the lights! This generally means that the first thing a sighted astronaut must do for security is ensure visual access to the environment. He hunts for a flashlight, and if emergency lighting comes on, his eyes take a moment to adjust. Meanwhile, the blind astronaut is already heading toward the source of the problem. In the fire aboard the Russian Mir space station, in 1997, the crew struggled as smoke obscured their view. The blind astronaut, while still affected by the lack of good air, would not be bothered by either dim lighting or occluding smoke. She would accurately direct the fire extinguisher at the source of heat and noise.”

In the Mir fire that Wells-Jensen mentions, one of the problems that arose was the sighted astronauts’ inability to locate the fire extinguisher through the smoke. Had the ship been laid out with a blind participant in mind, there would have been a nonvisual signal already built in to such a critical piece of equipment.

Or consider d/Deaf astronauts once again. The Gallaudet Eleven were tapped for their immunity to motion sickness—John Glenn even reportedly said he was envious of their ability to withstand the tests without getting sick—but there are other reasons why bringing a d/Deaf astronaut along could be useful. “Studies have shown that using sign languages confers cognitive advantages in one’s visual working memory, enhancing how we see, remember, and manipulate objects in our mind,” says Joseph Murray, a professor at Gallaudet University and the scholar behind the term Deaf Gain, the idea that deafness should not be considered a loss of something but, rather, a gain of a whole host of other things. “The challenge Deaf Gain offers for NASA and all workplaces is to rethink their automatic assumptions about deaf people’s capabilities,” Murray says. “If there is a mission need for people with advanced spatial processing skills who do not get motion sick, then there are quite a few deaf people ready and willing to serve.”


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It’s Time to Rethink Who’s Best Suited for Space Travel

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