AstroAccess is the winner 2023 Gizmodo Science Fair To lobby for universal accessibility in the space environment and to conduct assisted zero-gravity wayfinding tests for disabled individuals.
As we increasingly seek to live and work in low Earth orbit and beyond, how can we ensure that space is available to all?
AstroAccess, in addition to promoting disability inclusion in space, also conducts tests with people with disabilities in a simulated weightlessness environment, the equivalent flights chartered with Zero Gravity. Designed, developed, and implemented by an international team of disabled scientists, students, veterans, athletes, and artists, these tests provide early insights into the kinds of amenities that will make space a welcoming and productive place for all people. The disabled crew performs its tests inside a specially equipped cabin while the B-727 performs 18 equivalent maneuvers providing short periods of weightlessness. So far, AstroAccess has coordinated two of these flights, the first in October 2021, as well as participating in smaller partner missions.
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The tests show how individuals with various disabilities cope with weightlessness, how the comforts prescribed for them work or do not work, and whether certain comforts are necessary (for example, prosthetic legs in weightlessness proved to be a major inconvenience and completely useless) . The tests also reveal the unexpected, such as noise levels inside the cabin that made it impossible for the deaf and hard of hearing to conduct their acoustic experiments.
Furthermore, these flights reveal how some disabilities “disappear” in space, and even the ways in which they give some disabilities an advantage. Dwayne Fernandez, an AstroAccess ambassador and double amputee who participated in a recent flyby, described the disability as a condition in addition to the barriers. “In that zero-gravity flight, my condition was—my condition remained—but the barrier was gone. It became a strange, deep feeling that made me redefine myself.”
Among the company’s early offerings are a light-signal system for people who are deaf or hard of hearing and a series of tactile graphics mounted on the wall to direct blind astronauts to key equipment such as fire extinguishers. Equivalent flights tested the ability of disabled participants to perform basic tasks in a zero-gravity environment, whether it was simply moving around the cabin or performing a critical seat anchoring exercise, which required a five-point harness. And for people with lower limb disabilities, the two-point harness has been tested with positive results, allowing them to stay still while performing tasks.
Why did AstroAccess do this?
So far, our approach to space has been very directional, a result of the militaristic Cold War mentality that fueled the first space race between the United States and the Soviet Union, Fernandez explained. With this episode now visible in the rearview mirror, and with space opening up for more people with a diverse set of ambitions and goals, Ana Volker explained, AstroAccess co-founder and CEO, it’s time to right this wrong.
“This is a perfect point in history to talk about design that is accessible from scratch, rather than having to modify something already in orbit,” Volcker said, adding that “it’s the right thing to do — it’s what it is and fair.” On that, “It doesn’t make sense to design something that a lot of people don’t have access to,” as in the US, “25% of individuals have some kind of disability,” they explain. “You’re actually creating benefits for everyone and not just those who have been historically excluded from this opportunity.”
AstroAccess has already been in contact with developers of future commercial space stations to consult on potential designs.
Why are they winners?
AstroAccess is laying the groundwork for the inevitable and doing it the right way with the right people. As Fernandez said: “You wouldn’t leave this planet without us.” “It’s an important moment,” said George Whitesides, AstroAccess project leader and Virgin Galactic’s space advisory board. AstroAccess also deserves credit for its innovative in-flight offerings, which mark an important start in making space a universally accessible place to live and work.
AstroAccess demonstrations are “going to become more scientific” and “studied more deeply and aggressively,” said John Kemp, an ambassador for AstroAccess and a disability rights advocate. Kemp, a quadruple amputee, took part in the most recent flight that took off from Houston, Texas, on December 15, 2022. “There is no doubt that people with disabilities will feel they have every right, and they should feel we have every right to participate in travel,” he said. into space in the future.
Voelker aims to collaborate with more companies and work on various accessibility solutions to “bring these concepts to life”, as well as continuing zero-gravity flights, raising more money, and securing actual spaceflight opportunities.
Watch the full AstroAccess team here and a list of its ambassadors hereAnd hereAnd here.
See the full list of Gizmodo Science Fair winners
Read more: “You Don’t Leave Without Us”: Why Disabled Astronauts Are Key to Humankind’s Future in Space