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Making space accessible for all

AstroAccess Flight 2
AstroAccess
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The crew of the AstroAccess research flight.

Last month, 14 disabled crew members took a trip on a Zero-G flight from Houston, Texas, experiencing weightlessness while flying parabolic arcs.

Their mission: conduct research in microgravity. Their goal: make space accessible for all.

The research included testing new safety and communication equipment, demonstrated that passengers with visual and hearing impairments could safely fly in space, and other experiments utilizing microgravity.

We speak with Anna Voelker, Executive Director, Mission:AstroAccess along with AstroAccess ambassadors and researchers Dr. Carlos Archilla-Cady and Sheila Xu.

Transcript

Brendan Byrne 
We will talk about what AstroAccess does. And we'll talk about some some policy changes in the future. We'll talk about research. But first, we have to talk about the actual flight itself. Because this is such a cool experience. I had the chance to fly Zero-G recently, but let's just start by talking about the flight. Carlos, let's start with you. It's phenomenal, isn't it?

Carlos Archilla-Cady 
It is incredible. I mean, you know, you think about the space travel there is two very major components about that is the ability to be in zero gravity, weightless, and the other abilities to kind of do the overview effect, you know, seeing the curvature of the Earth. So with a Zero-G flight, you actually have one of those. And I had the privilege to have this experience back in March this year, I did it on my own and I found the experience not only extremely healing, but very empowering to continue the mission that that I represent with AstroAccess,.

Brendan Byrne 
And Sheila, what was the experience like for you was this your first Zero-G flight?

Sheila Xu 
This was my first zero G flight. And ever since I've grown up, I have really loved everything space. So growing up, I've always wanted to experience zero gravity. That's something I've always wanted to do. You know, I wanted to experience it one way or another. So I was really excited that I could do it this time around, especially since many people told me I couldn't do it since I'm a deaf person. And so finally, being able to have this opportunity was awesome, and to be with such a great crew of deaf people. Within the group we were talking about, you can't really explain zero G for someone who's never experienced zero g, it's similar to trying to explain someone what chocolate tastes like when they never actually tasted chocolate before. And I really thought that was a funny way to explain it. But it's true. It's really true to be in zero G and to be floating around weightless is just a total experience that's hard to explain to people. And then also while doing experiments simultaneously, it was a lot of work. But we were able to be successful in all the research that we did. I was a part of four experiments. And so that was an awesome time.

Brendan Byrne 
Sheila, did you were you prepared for that moment when you left the floor of the plane? It's a very odd feeling, right? I mean, I know you said it was very difficult for people to describe it to you. Did you feel prepared? Or was it just a completely new experience for you?

Sheila Xu 
I have gone scuba diving before. And people often say scuba diving can be similar to the experience of zero gravity. But to be honest, it's still very different. I feel as though you still have things around you in when you're scuba diving, as opposed to there is nothing around totally weightless. And there's no nothing connecting you to that. So I wasn't quite ready for that experience, to be honest. And you definitely can't compare it to scuba diving.

Brendan Byrne 
I would agree. Anna, let's talk about your your experience. What was it like? I mean, this is this is, you know, your organization, you're taking, you know, a crew of people that are a part of this organization and also experiencing it yourself. What was that flight like?

Anna Voelker 
I had the pleasure and privilege of flying on our inaugural mission last year in 2021. So this is my second time around. So I knew a little bit more what to expect. But, you know, I don't think you're ever quite prepared for the sensation. And as Sheila said, everyone was doing a wide array of experiments. So I think that that's something you know, as Sheila said, she was part of four different research projects. Carlos similarly had multiple experiments that he was performing. And for many of our ambassadors, that being their first time in zero gravity, I think it's really a testament to their skills toacclimate so quickly, and then to dive right into the research because that's really what we were there to do is, is get this research done and to be pushing, pushing access forward as we start to really investigate accessibility beyond Earth.

Brendan Byrne 
Let's talk a bit about that research. Because when I got to go, I didn't have to work very hard. I just got to enjoy myself. You all are doing multiple experiments. Carlos, talk to me a little bit about the experiments that you worked on this flight.

Carlos Archilla-Cady 
Yes, definitely. We all were very busy. In addition to enjoying the experience doing some experiments that we hope that is going to be opening the door not only for people with disabilities to enjoy and being part of the space exploration and space travel, but in really apply those learnings to hear in society and to different promote solutions for everyone here on Earth. So in my first original flight in March, although I was kind of more like a tourist, I negotiated to do one of the experiments, which is believed to be the first time in history that has been done. I'm someone with eye disease, so I wanted to measure my eye pressures in zero gravity is something that's never been done by someone with active eye disease. It was great. It was definitely the numbers were very similar to the observations that we have been made by healthy volunteers aboard the ISS and in other flights prior. During the flight that we did, which we had two flights, one flight in November, that was out of Philadelphia, and another one in Houston. I've participated with another ambassador who was representing our neurodiversity group. And we did a series of experiments. One was a something simple, which is testing a five point restrain, harness on for the seat, something that we actually expanded in flight two And believe it or not, this is something very important for the space tourism and space agencies, because they want to be sure that someone can get in and out of the seat if something goes wrong within 30 seconds. And I think that was very, we definitely were able to accomplish that.

Another experiment, you know, because I have a medical background, I wanted to be sure that for people with low vision, you can get intravenous access in space without having the skills of a nurse or a physician. So we tested that some of the tools that we have here that actually calibrate well in zero gravity, and they did. And then another one that was very important, was an experiment in collaboration with NASA's Solar System Exploration Research Venture Institute that is also known as SERVI, and the principal investigator, Dr. Alex Parker we were testing a miniature spacecraft, kind of the size of a beach ball. And that is designed for this space exploration to in the future, be able to land in an asteroid, either for that we're going to experiment that we're not going to find out more, or we're going to do some potential asteroid mining.

Brendan Byrne 
Sheila, what about you, you said you had four experiments on the flight. Tell me a bit about what you were investigating and and what you're able to find?

Sheila Xu
Yeah, so I was a part of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing crew. And in our group, I represented a few different experiments. So one was the American Sign Language experiment was to see if we could understand each other in American Sign Language in zero gravity. So, you know, depending on a deaf person, and what language they use, some Deaf people use speaking and listening. Some deaf people use American Sign Language, I use both. And so I was able to participate in all four of the experiments because of how I function through the world. Another experiment was the light experiment, which was a set of colored lights, that would let us know when we were entering and exiting zero gravity. And so that was a visual representation of what was happening around us. And that was successful, we could all see the lights around us. And so if all of a sudden you're in space, and you lose your hearing, that would be a backup thing to be able to see and knowing what they correspond with. I also was in another experiment testing to see whether or not cooler implants in hearing aids will stay on during zero gravity. And that was also successful in our experiment -- my cochlear implant did not fall off while I was in zero gravity. For example, right now, we're using a lot of technology. Nowadays, air pods are really popular. And so this is another way in which the technology of deaf and hard of hearing people will benefit other people who don't who are not deaf or hard of hearing.

Then the other experiment I was in required using listening skills. It's called Sonic Cloud, and I had to wear a set of headphones. Because the environment is so noisy, it's difficult to hear the commands and the cues. And so we tested it through one way communication, another person would be wearing the headset, and they would speak into the headset to me and I will be able to respond and let them know what I was able to hear during that. So for me during that experiment, we initially had a word list where we ran through all the words, and I was able to receive about half of the words that way, which is pretty good, considering how noisy the environment is.

And then the final experiment, since I am an American Sign Language user, and I worked with my peer Eric shear, who's also an American Sign Language user. We wanted to make sure we can communicate in zero gravity, you know, as we are flipped upside down, can you truly understand someone in American Sign Language, and it was effective, we were able to understand each other. There were a few situations where we weren't able to understand each other in the sense of whether it was a question or a statement that shown in American Sign Language through the movement of your eyebrows. And so that was a little more difficult to see when you're spinning around to be able to understand whether or not it was a question or a statement. So that's you know, we have a lot of great data that we got during this experience. meant, and I'm looking forward to see what happens with the information that we got. Also, I think this is extremely beneficial. If all of a sudden you lose your hearing, or it's too noisy. There are other ways to communicate in space using American Sign Language facial expressions. So it's definitely adaptable to space.

Brendan Byrne 
That's fascinating. I didn't even think about the orientation of where you are would have an effect on how you're able to communicate through ASL or other methods. Anna is that the whole point of this? To raise awareness of these issues that many people may not even be thinking about?

Anna Voelker
Yes, absolutely. And more so to Sheila's earlier point. It's also about highlighting the aspects that are beneficial for everyone. And so this kind of gets to the heart of Aster access, which is promoting universal design. So universal design is this idea that we should be designing our space systems and our technologies for the widest audience possible. And that in turn benefits, not just those who have historically been excluded, but everyone and I think Sheila's experiments are a really great example of that, as she pointed out, a sign language would be incredibly valuable for hearing astronauts alike if your comm systems go out. Or if for example, Sheila actually did a test also with pressurized flight suits. And they were so noisy that all of the hearing people couldn't really communicate with each other. But Sheila and her fellow deaf Ambassador Eric Sheer, were able to fluently chat with one another, all of the the hearing trainees were unable to. And so here we see this advantage. But this was actually part of a pre flight training that we did in partnership with Uplift Aerospace, over at the biosphere two at the University of Arizona, Sheila and a few other of our ambassadors actually underwent some astronaut training with them, including doing this in a scuba environment as well. And so they actually did this entire experiment underwater in partnership with Uplift Aerospace, and CHSE, which is the Center for human space exploration. And we're able to then recreate that experiment in zero G kind of, you know, transitioning from the aquatic environment of buoyancy to the to the zero G one.

Brendan Byrne 
So this I mean, this this technology that you're testing, I'm thinking about, you know, Sheila’s experiments and Carlos, your experiments, it could very well be used for someone in flight who has an impairment during a mission -- they suddenly may have lose lost their hearing, or it's a very noisy environment or Carlos, some sort of vision impairment, as well. I'm wondering, is there an issue that these things are thought of in that way, that they could be used for people that do not have a disability, and that, you know, people that do not have this kind of access right off the bat are being overlooked? And your experiments are just being used in case something happens to someone who does not have this disability?

Ann Voelker
I do. Yeah, absolutely. So at Dr. Sherry Wells Jensen, who's one of the key members of our leadership team, and also a member of the, the blind crew likes to say whether we plan on it or not, disability in space will happen. It's a disabling environment. And so people may become deaf, disability will occur. And so, it's really vital that we set our systems up with this access in mind ahead of time, and you know, that that in turn sets our astronauts up for success so that they are able to, you know, be contributing members of, of those missions and of those crews. So I think that's a, that's a really excellent point that this isn't just for folks who, you know, have a disability before going to space, right? It's something that, you know, this this accessibility being built into the design ahead of time is really vital for for setting ourselves up for success in the future, as as humanity, adventures further and further out into into space and longer and longer space, duration, space mission durations. So I think that's a really excellent point. And I'd love to hear Sheila and Carlos, if you have any thoughts to add on that.

Sheila Xu
So all humans will have a disability at some point in their life. And you know, if we truly want to live and you know, if people are talking about living in space in the future, then that means someone who will eventually get this face will have a disability, and whether it's before, during or after. And so it's important for us to be able to have accessibility embedded in this system, and that it is then ready if all of a sudden it happens if it's already there. But just to make sure that it's included from the beginning. Space is dangerous, right? There is it's not necessarily friendly to human life. So if we're thinking about all the different aspects that go into human life and what can happen up in space, it follows on you break a leg and you can't walk, you know, what will happen to you? And what type of information and research is happening with that that's happening with AstroAccess, all of our experiments are contributing to that point.

Carlos Archilla-Cady 
I mean, I think that, you know, always speak about the innovative mindset that people with disabilities have, and how can we actually expand that innovative mindset to everyone that is participating in this kind of venture or any venture in life, you know, people with disabilities, we're very resilient, we have a lot of determination and empathy. But in addition to that, we are innovators, you know, innovate everyday to accommodate to a world that's not designed for us. And that innovation mindset can help us not only innovate in the solutions going forward in the future, but how can we adapt quickly and enough in an innovative fashion, if something goes wrong? Do you have heard about some of the examples are what happened in the MIR station in 1997, when there was a fire and the lights went out, and it took about 12 minutes for them to pull out the fire. And we always wonder, if it's someone that is used to blindness or darkness would have responded a little bit faster. And so we always say that probably we need to start seeing disability as an asset, not as a limitation, and an asset that we can all benefit from that. And we can always also teach others to have the same innovative mindset when they venture into this environment.

Brendan Byrne 
with that said, you all are paving the way for the for the future, but in the near term, are there opportunities for people with disabilities now to get to space in the near term? We've got things like Zero-G, obviously, but there's also you know, commercial space, and in the not-too-distant future, they're going to be commercial space stations Do you feel that the opportunities are there now, and if not what needs to happen?

Anna Voelker
I'll jump in here. But then I'd love to hear Sheila and Carlos, I think that what AstroAcces is doing right now is actively creating those opportunities. And what we are really doing is using these Zero-G flights, as stepping stones towards spaceflight. And that's something that we're our team is actively working on, in order to secure spaceflight opportunities for our ambassadors and for astronauts with disabilities. And as you said, that's, that's closer in the future than I think a lot of people realize with all of these commercial spaceflight opportunities coming up. And, and beyond that, to the point of commercial space stations, we are actively talking with and connected with every company, building a commercial space station in the world today. And this is really vital. Because if we can make the destination accessible, then that really redefines you know, who gets to go to space. And who is that for if we can create accessible space stations from the start, as opposed to retrofitting afterwards. And that has so many so many draws, and so many appeals, not only from the point of view of being what's just and what's equitable, but also in terms of the commercial viability of these space stations. When we look at, you know, people with disabilities are the largest minority group in the world 25% of US citizens. And when we look at the over 65 population, which is the population most likely to be purchasing one of those commercial tickets, it's 46%. So almost one in two of your potential customer base has some type of disability. And so it's really critical that that these companies are thinking about accessibility.

And so we have started those, those conversations and connections with the ultimate goal of working in partnership with these organizations to ensure accessibility in the design of the space stations. And we're at this pivotal moment in history, where we actually have the opportunity to do that, to really define the future generation of space architecture, which is something that is just mind boggling to even say, but that's where we are right now. It's getting designed as we speak, the designs are being drawn up. And a major goal for AstroAccess within those conversations is to ensure one that disabled people are at the table and are contributing to those design solutions. And two, that what ultimately gets built is built with everyone in mind,

Carlos Archilla-Cady 
In addition to the space stations that are going to be commercial, most of them going forward. We also engaging with space tourism companies to say we can make space travel also an inclusive experience for everyone. So we're not only saying it can be done we have proof that it can be done but we can also develop the know how that we can share with them. So we can have an inclusive experience and always say that if we can make disability inclusion in the final frontier, he can serve as a model of achieving disability inclusion across all frontiers right here on Earth.

Brendan Byrne 
And Sheila, what what needs to happen in the near term, to make sure that there is this access for all?

Sheila Xu
So, you know, I remember, I'm in business school. So I'm thinking a lot about the space sector and the enterprise. And I have been talking a lot with my classmates about this, and several professors as well. So I do believe that we have so many commercial opportunities in the future, specifically for technology regarding accessibility, also, the making sure that that accessibility makes it to the space industry. The technology that's happening in space kind of could be transferable to on Earth as well. And so we want to make sure that that's happening, and that it's going vice versa, as well. So specifically, in the MIT Media Lab, I was reading an article about what they were doing there. And there is someone doing a research project there that I loved. And what that was, is they are using a microphone that you can silently speak to yourself through the microphone, so the microphone and comes up through your ear. And this person is not deaf. It's not necessarily a full microphone, but it's more of like, it looks like an old Bluetooth piece that connects from your ear to your mouth. And so you're able to speak softly through yourself to the headpiece and that technology is recognizing that. And I think that that's definitely applicable to space, so that you're able to then communicate through that technology to someone else, so that it's able to pick up so much more. And so there's so many different types of things happening in different industries. And so it would be great to see them all come into one, and also talking about on the Zero-G flight. So for example, the lights are beneficial for me, as they're changing different colors. But that benefits so many other people as well. And so when we were building the space station, they should build in lights that are different colors, so that people are able to rely on those in the future. And then also that the investors see the value in investing in technology and these types of places as well. And also making sure that we can walk the talk, we're talking a lot about it, but let's put our money, where we're speaking about and make sure that that happens.

Carlos Archilla-Cady 
And if I may add, in addition to a medical degree, I have a business degree. And always say that we're always looking for what is the next economic engine of the future, we're talking about the space industry being a tremendous part of that economic engine going forward in the next decade generating another one to two trillion dollars in revenues, that will create 3 million jobs and create opportunities for all but another on top economies what we call the disability economy, which is we still have a lot of problems and unmet needs, that the solutions that we are developing in space can actually generate solutions for the disability economy. And we're talking about adding another $2 trillion to the economy and creating tremendous opportunities for all. And if we can do it in a sustainable way, this is not mutually exclusive. And other aspect that you see in the short term is democratizing space investment by any individual. So all of us can actually invest in that future, both in disability economy and the space economy. And that can be something that anyone can have access to.

Brendan Byrne 
Anna Carlos, Sheila, thank you so much for sharing your experience and joining us for this absolutely fascinating conversation. Thank you to all of you.

Carlos Archilla-Cady 
It has been an honor. Thank you so much for having us.

Anna Voelker
Yes. Thank you so much.

Sheila Xu
Thank you so much.

Transcript was produced by Otter.ai, utilizing artificial intelligence. This text may not be in it's final form and may be updated.

Brendan covers space news for WMFE, everything from rocket launches to the latest scientific discoveries in our universe. He hosts WMFE's weekly radio show and podcast "Are We There Yet?" which explores human space exploration. Brendan is a native Floridian, born and raised in Broward County. He moved to Central Florida in 2005 to attend the University of Central Florida. He began working at WMFE as a college intern where he discovered his love for public radio.