“I’ve always secretly wanted to be an astronaut,” Mary Cooper told us earlier this year. “It’s just a super-competitive process, so people keep it to themselves because they don’t want to broadcast it and then not be selected.”
The secret’s already out, as far as Cooper is concerned. Next week she’ll join 15 other people with disabilities on her second simulated zero-gravity flight with Mission: AstroAccess, a unique project that promotes inclusive space travel. The journey will make her the most seasoned amputee space trainee ever, the first to experience weightlessness in the upper atmosphere on multiple occasions.
When we shared Cooper’s story in our July/August print edition, space constraints limited us to just a small part of her experience. Here’s a much longer edit of our conversation. Learn more about Mission:AstroAccess (and contribute to the cause) at astroaccess.org.
Until just the last few years, the idea of sending people with disabilities into space didn’t even exist. Can you point to anything in your upbringing or early experience that helped you believe in this completely untested idea?
That’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. If you told me when I was a freshman at Stanford that I would have gone to zero G flight before I graduated, I’d be like, “No, that’s not possible.”
Growing up, sports played a really big role in my life. And I’m not gonna lie: At times, sports are terrifying for an amputee. Playing on an able-bodied soccer team, swimming on an able-bodied team, a lot of times I was the slowest. I was on the rowing team at Stanford, and I’m still the slowest. I finished dead last consistently. But sports taught me the importance of a team. If you want to go quick, you go by yourself. But if you want to go far, you go with the team. That’s really resonated with me. Everyone’s gonna have moments where they waver. I definitely have moments when that happens. But in those moments, I can rely on my teammates. That strong connection and support group is really important to me.
How did you team up with AstroAccess?
I’ve always been interested in aerospace engineering. My dad’s a helicopter pilot in the Coast Guard, so I’ve always been around aviation and military. At Stanford I majored in aerospace engineering, and I was super lucky to get to do two aerospace fellowships. One of them is called the Brooke Owens Fellowship, which is for women who are interested in aerospace. And the other one is the Matthew Isakowitz Fellowship, which is named after a young man who passed away from cancer who was very prevalent in aerospace as well. Both of those fellowships gave me great mentors and great experience.
At the end of each one, you all come together and get to meet leaders from the industry. At the Matthew Isakowitz Fellowship, I got to meet a man called George Whitesides, the former CEO of Virgin Galactic. He’s one of the co-founders of Mission: AstroAccess, and he’s super passionate about disability and inclusion in space. I ran into him, and this poor man couldn’t escape me. I followed him around, telling him, “I want to be on your inaugural flight.”
Tell me a little more about George Whitesides. Why did he establish this organization? Why’s he interested in making space accessible and inclusive?
There are two main founders of AstroAccess, George Whitesides and Anna Voelker. George was CEO of Virgin Galactic, so he’s been involved in the space industry for a while. He wants to get as many people as possible into space, but it also matters to him what type of humanity we are when we get there. So he’s just excited about space accessibility as a whole. And then Anna is the founder of something called SciAccess, which is all about disabilities in science and STEM. Neither of them has any physical disabilities, to my knowledge. But this is a pivotal time in the space industry, and they both think it’s the time to begin thinking about accessible design. They want to incorporate accessible design at the very beginning. Before the next generation of rockets are even built, they want to consider how it would carry someone with a wheelchair into space.
My understanding of accessible design, or universal design, is that having a diverse design team results in technology that works better everyone, not just better for people with disabilities. Is that the basic philosophy here?
Yes, totally. When you’re as inclusive as possible in your design, it creates a better environment overall. This is well recognized within the aerospace industry. Aerospace is very risk-averse field, and you have to have a lot of fault-tolerant systems. They talk about two-fault-tolerant systems or three-fault-tolerant systems—like, three things can go wrong in the mission could still succeed. In their mind, successful design thinking involves built-in safety redundancies. An example I give from our first flight is that we had haptic [touch-based] feedback systems, and those were to there to communicate with the ambassadors who couldn’t hear. But the able-bodied astronauts who were with us on the flight loved it as well. They want this on their regular missions, even though they can hear. Designing for disabled individuals puts you in that innovative, out-of-the-box creative mindset, and that’s necessary to create a better experience for everyone.
I take it you’ve always done a lot of flying, if your dad is a Coast Guard pilot. Did you grow up flying around in helicopters all the time?
I wish I could have grown up flying in a helicopter. But even though my dad and my uncle are both helicopter pilots, they couldn’t fly me around in the military helicopter. I kind of grew up playing in the helicopter, though, when it was on the ground. And I would say that I have a tremendous amount of respect for the men and women who serve our country. Especially for my father. I just look up to him a lot. I admire his demeanor. He’s the type of person that’s very smart and mathematical; he can make decisions under pressure. But he’s also the type of person who can make anyone in a room laugh. He can’t go anywhere without making four new best friends. I love that he has the ability to mix the science and math with the ability to communicate. That’s what I’ve always associated with aerospace leaders, and that’s kind of why I myself wanted to get into that role.
Did you have a specific mission on first AstroAccess flight? Were you assigned specific tasks to perform?
Our inaugural zero G flight was really just a proof of concept. All of the ambassadors knew we were more than capable of completing the zero G flight. It was more about proving to the world and showing them how capable we are, how few accommodations we need, and how it can even sometimes be an advantage to have a disability in a zero-G environment, as opposed to being completely able-bodied. It was an amazing experience.
I’m now on the leadership team of Mission: AstroAccess, and I’m hoping to find suborbital flight opportunities. Suborbital flights are what you see Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin doing, launching into space on a rocket.
Did you learn anything specific from your first zero G flight about space flight for people with disabilities? Did any epiphanies occur?
The first thing I would say is that, when we’re kids, we experience new things all the time because the world is brand new to us. But then we grow up, and even though exciting things may happen, nothing really new happens.
Wait till you get to be my age.
It was really exciting to experience this totally new thing as an adult. It’s really hard to explain how different it is to move around in zero G. People ask me if it’s like being in a swimming pool, and honestly it’s nothing like that. You do have the tendency to make swimming motions, but that does absolutely nothing. You just look like a weirdo.
Right before the zero gravity moment, you have this feeling of excitement. We would start on our stomachs, and you just go straight to the roof. I could push off with one pinky to go from horizontal to vertical. If I try to grab an object, just by the act of grabbing it I’m going to push it away—and it’s gonna push me away. It’s so hard to make connections, so hard to maneuver.
One of the most special moments on the flight was seeing wheelchair users stand up in zero G. Some of our ambassadors on that flight have been in a wheelchair for more than half their life, and they haven’t stood up in 20 years or so. And I’m getting to stand up and almost walk with them—it was only for maybe 10 seconds, but if you gave them hours to spend in zero G I can’t even imagine what the potential could be. That was really neat.
We had people with tons of different kinds of disabilities on that flight, and we were all able to do the flight with little to no accommodation. We could be safe and productive and have a good time, and we really didn’t need much support. Don’t get me wrong, everyone needs a little bit of something. But any astronaut is going to need some sort of accommodation.
What kind of support would make space flight more accessible to you as an amputee?
On the International Space Station, they have a lot of foot rails that you can lock into to keep your spot in your gravity environment. It’s what we call “station keep.” The foot rail can be kind of hard for me, because my ankle is fixed at a 90 degree angle. So we talked about having a prosthetic foot that’s also magnetic, and that can magnetize onto that foot rail.
Here’s another question, and please don’t take this the wrong way. Some of our readers are going to say, “I’m never going to go to outer space. What does this have to do with me?” What’s the relevance of what AstroAccess is doing for the average person who’s never going to fly into orbit?
I think there are a couple things. Number one, because I’ve grown up in the disability community, I’ve seen that a win for anyone with a disability is a win for the entire community. Another thought is that a new era of space travel is just beginning, so we have a chance to make a first impression and define what it’s going to be like to have a disability in space. That’s going to change the entire perspective of disability and rebrand what it even means to be disabled. And I think that is important, no matter who you are.
A lot of astronauts talk about something called the Overview Effect. It’s this moment of seeing the entire world and recognizing you’re just this little speck on it. That’s a profound moment for a lot of people who go into space, and they’re able to share that perspective with everyone. So having disabled astronauts included in that movement is going to increase leadership for the entire disabled community. I think it’s going to force the rest of the world to perceive the disabled community differently. And that is really important.