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  • Writer's pictureNeil Hopper

Parastronaut update : Why I want to be an astronaut....

Just before Christmas I packed my overnight bag and set off to Bristol for a flight to Hamburg. I was to attend the Deutches Zentrum fur Luft- und Raumfahrt (DLR) or German Aerospace Centre for the next round of astronaut selection. But, Omicron had different plans for me - for, as I waited in the hotel in Bristol, Germany closed its borders to the UK in response to the high rates of the novel infection here. My trip was postponed.

My initial worry was allayed by reassuring emails from ESA and a new plan to reschedule my trip. I was still in the game!

So far, selection has been based on CV and a brief personal statement. The next stage is psychometric testing and if I get through that (a very big, huge IF) the following stages consist of team working and leadership assessments, interviews and medical tests.

I grew up in the 80s and was obsessed with space. I remember the first shuttle lift-off in 1984 and visited the Kennedy Space Centre twice. My wardrobe door was covered with the crew patches of the STS missions. But, all the time I was aware that I did not have the correct sort of "Right Stuff" to become an astronaut. For one, I wasn't American or Russian! Additionally, I wore glasses and, although doors were opening for engineers and physicians, it seemed that being a military pilot was the best way into space. I was never going to be allowed to do that.

So I pottered away. I was interested in electronics and wondered if my route to space (or at the least the "Space industry") would be as an engineer. My grandfather was a telecommunications engineer so I had access to his workshop and he helped me build kit radios and other gadgets. I became interested in robotics and built a small robot arm for a school competition using syringes as hydraulics (surprisingly it worked well and I won the competition).

I loved science. Maybe as a consequence of having parents who are both nurses, or maybe because of advice from my teachers that I would be perfectly suited to a career in Medicine - I chose to enrol in Medical School and qualified as a doctor. My dreams of Space weren't totally over though. As a junior doctor I applied to NASA as a ground-based doctor only to be told that I could not apply as I wasn't an American citizen (I still have the letter somewhere!).

I eventually became a Consultant Vascular Surgeon (haemodynamic conduit engineer?!) and settled into Cornish life with my wife and 2 children. In 2019 my world was turned upside-down with sepsis and my amputations. It's fair to say that I hit rock bottom shortly thereafter - but the recovery began and I decided to try and do more with my life. There's nothing like a brush with mortality to make you want to do more and experience more (of everything!).

A friend sent me the ESA notice that they were going to attempt to recruit a differently-abled astronaut. I remember thinking that was an incredible opportunity for someone. As I read the notice it suddenly dawned on me that I fulfilled many, if not all, of the qualifications and specifications for the job. I also have always continued my interest in engineering and technology (Someday I should post about my BASIC stamp controlled robot lawnmower, my attempts at home automation before Alexa, my solar powered protein folding pi farm, my 3d printer obsession...etc). The ember of my spaceflight dream suddenly burst into flame. My inner Nerd was triumphant! I decided to apply!

So here I am. Past the first round of selection. I believe that, as of time of writing, I am in a cohort of 29 Parastronaut candidates.

Already this has been good for me. I have started running (yes - I bought blades!). I have lost weight. I have become aware of my cognition and memory and have been working to improve them. I have enjoyed with new vigour reading about Space. My son Harry and I watched the Virgin Galactic flight, the New Shepard flight, the launch of the Webb Telescope. It suddenly dawned on me that space is being democratised. Barriers are coming down - so why can't a disabled person travel into space?

So, even if I do not make it past the next stage - I am now, at the very least, able to tell my future grandchildren about the time I (almost) became an astronaut!!

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