John McFall: Who is the first disabled astronaut in history?

John McFall: Who is the first disabled astronaut in history?

For those of you who are avid sports fans, John McFall isn’t a stranger at all. The British Paralympic sprinter has raced at a number of international events, bringing home numerous medals and rankings.

He has been dubbed one of the fastest men in the world over 100 and 200 metres in the class of above-the-knee amputees, winning the bronze medal at the 2008 Summer Paralympics in Beijing.

Most recently, he added to his long list of accomplishments by becoming the first European Space Agency parastronaut in history, as a trauma and orthopaedic specialist.

Here is a look at John McFall’s life and achievements.

Who is John McFall?

John McFall, 41, was born in Frimley, Surrey, and grew up in Somerset running and playing hockey.

During his gap year trip to Samui, Thailand, in 2000, McFall was involved in a serious motorcycle accident that damaged his knee and lower right leg.

Given the severity of his injury, his leg had to be amputated above the knee three days after his accident at a hospital in Bangkok.

He went through a rehabilitation phase at Queen Mary’s Hospital in Roehampton, London, for seven weeks.

During the year that followed, McFall took up mountain biking and climbing, and started working as a fitness instructor at his local leisure centre.

Once his prosthesis was fitted in 2003, he took up running and pursued a degree in sport and exercise science at Swansea University.

Because his prosthesis wasn’t designed for an active lifestyle, he eventually managed to get carbon-fibre running blades from the Federation of Disability Sport Wales.

Once he finished his course, he joined a postgraduate course in sport and exercise science at the University of Wales Institute, Cardiff.

John McFall from the UK has been chosen as the first disabled astronaut (ESA/PA)
John McFall from the UK has been chosen as the first disabled astronaut (ESA/PA)

When did his paralympic career start?

Following training sessions with an ex-Paralympian, McFall started working with former Welsh athlete Darrell Maynard in early 2005.

He was picked to represent Great Britain at the International Paralympic Committee European Championships in Finland in August 2005. There, he won a bronze medal in the 200 metres and came fourth in the 100-metre race.

He was then placed on a funding programme, allowing him to become a full-time athlete.

Although he was born in England, the parathlete competed for Wales and lives in Cardiff.

In January 2006, just two weeks before the Sparkassen Cup in Stuttgart, Germany, McFall’s car and his customised running prosthesis were stolen.

Following his appeal, he received a phonecall asking what he was willing to pay to get his prosthesis back. McFall refused to pay anything and asked them if they had considered what being an amputee was like.

The prosthesis was anonymously returned a week later, with McFall agreeing to take no further action against them.

He went on to achieve his personal best times with the prosthesis on February 4.

Over the following few years, the athlete raced at numerous international events, winning a number of medals, including a bronze at the 2007 Beijing Paralympics in 2008.

Later, in 2012, McFall became a mentor for the Paralympic Inspiration Programme, supporting aspiring Paralympians, and worked as an ambassador and attaché for the International Paralympic Committee at the 2012 London Games.

When did he become a doctor?

John McFall’s medical career began in 2009, when he started pursuing a Bachelor of Medicine and Surgery degree at the Cardiff University School of Medicine, and working as a nursing assistant at the Marie Curie Hospice in Cardiff.

He graduated in 2014, and joined the NHS as a junior doctor.

Between 2016 and 2018, he completed his core surgical training, covering general surgery, urology, trauma, and orthopaedics.

Currently, the father-of-three works as a trauma and orthopaedic specialist registrar in the UK and is studying for his Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons exams.

When and how did John McFall become a Parastronaut?

The 2022 European Space Agency (ESA) Astronaut Group was revealed in Paris on November 23, 2022.

It was the fourth ESA recruitment campaign and the first since 2008. They selected their final recruits out of more than 22,000 applications.

Only those who were a citizen of an ESA member or associate-member state, under the age of 50, between 150 and 190 cm tall, with a normal Body Mass Index (BMI), and a master’s degree in relevant fields could apply.

Women were particularly encouraged to apply, in order to address the gender gap among astronauts.

1,361 applicants made it through the initial screening to participate in cognitive, technical, motor-co-ordination, and personality tests at Hamburg’s German Aerospace Centre.

The third stage saw applicants go through more psychometric, individual and group tests, before their physical and psychological strength was studied via medical tests.

Those who made it to the fifth stage went through panel interviews and a background check. Then, in the final stage, applicants were interviewed by the ESA director general in Paris.

After the long recruitment process, McFall was among the 17 new astronauts the agency had selected for missions in the late 2020s and through the 2030s.