John McFall is the European Space Agency’s first ever para-astronaut, selected to study how feasible it is for someone with a physical disability to live and work in space. BBC News joined him on board a parabolic flight, where he experienced weightlessness for the first time.
One minute John McFall is lying on the floor of a plane. The next, he starts to float upwards, still horizontal, seemingly levitating towards the ceiling.
He looks astonished – everyone on this far-from-normal flight does, as they slowly rise into the air. The sensation of being weightless, no longer pinned down by gravity, is extraordinary.
A smile begins to form across John’s face – he starts laughing. “It’s brilliant, it’s amazing,” he says.
John is an astronaut candidate with a difference – he’s an amputee. When he was 19 he lost his leg in a motorcycle accident, and now uses a high-tech prosthesis.
He has now been recruited by the European Space Agency (Esa) to take part in a ground-breaking study assessing how to make spaceflight accessible to people with physical disabilities.
“I saw that the European Space Agency had announced that they were looking for an astronaut with a physical disability,” he says, “and I looked at the person specification and thought, ‘Wow, that’s me – I would love to give that a go’.”
John’s used to pushing himself to the limit. After losing his leg and learning to walk again with a prosthesis, he took up running – for fun at first, then competitively. He went on to win a bronze medal in the 100m final at the 2008 Beijing Paralympics.
He then decided to become a doctor and is currently working as a trauma and orthopaedic registrar in Hampshire, but he’s had to pause his medical career – the opportunity to work with Esa was too good to turn down.
“I’m very much following my heart and I’m following my curiosity,” he explains, “and I’m following my passion for science and life.”