Mary Cooper Wants to Be the First Amputee Astronaut

Mission: AstroAccess wants to send people with disabilities into outer space, and below-knee amputee Mary Cooper hopes to be aboard for the inaugural launch. The Stanford undergraduate flew on the project’s first test mission last fall, a parabolic jet flight that simulated zero-gravity environments.

How did you get connected with AstroAccess?

I’ve been lucky to get to do two aerospace fellowships. Both gave me great mentors and great experience. And at one of them, I got to meet George Whitesides, the former CEO of Virgin Galactic. He’s one of the cofounders of Mission: AstroAccess, and he’s 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.”

What was the zero-G flight like?

It was an amazing experience. We had people with lots of different disabilities. Another amputee flew on the flight, and we had some people in wheelchairs, deaf individuals, blind individuals. It was a broad range. We also had [able-bodied] NASA astronauts on the flight with us. The crew was super cool, the most prepared crew you could imagine.

Were you nervous ahead of time?

I don’t think any of us were. We were all excited about proving people with disabilities are more than capable of handling a zero-G environment, and how few accommodations we need. Being an amputee in zero G can even be an advantage sometimes. 

Why is it important to send people with disabilities into space? 

The aerospace industry is very risk-averse, so you have to have fault-tolerant systems—so, like, three things can go wrong, and the mission could still succeed. Successful design involves built-in safety redundancies, and designing for disabled individuals creates a better and safer experience for everyone. For example, on our flight we had a haptic (touch-based) system to communicate with the individuals who can’t hear. But the non-disabled astronauts on the flight loved it. They want it on their regular missions. Having that innovative, creative mindset adds a lot.

Did you have any ideas for design changes that would aid an amputee in space?

They have foot rails that you can lock into to keep your place in zero G, but they can be hard for me because my ankle is fixed at a 90-degree angle. We talked about having a magnetic rail and a prosthetic foot that’s also magnetic. There would also need to be storage and access for my leg if I wanted to take it off.

Could space travel yield accessible technologies that are useful for daily Earth-bound living? 

Totally. I’m very interested in that. I’m interested specifically in prosthetic foot technology. I also think material science is very interesting, and how artificial limbs connect to our bodies. In the aerospace realm, SpaceX has done a really good job of revolutionizing technology and bringing down costs. Likewise, some company is going to come in and revolutionize accessible technology that transforms human lives. And that’s going to change the entire perspective of disability and rebrand what it even means to be disabled.

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