​Space Travel for Gimps?

Posted by Tim Gilmer in Life After Paralysis on November 16, 2021 # Lifestyle

SpaceThe word is space flight for people with disabilities may now be a distinct possibility. A dozen disabled “astronauts” recently participated in a sub-orbital flight organized by AstroAcess, in which four regular wheelchair users experienced weightlessness for a total of three minutes — in two separate 90-second bursts. When combined with the latest trend of billionaires mounting space flights for the public, this event has led to speculation on future possibilities for earthbound people who have disabilities.

I’ve got questions.

First question: Could this lead to the eventual extinction of the phrase, “wheelchair-bound?” That alone would be a notable achievement, since those of us who use wheelchairs have been trying to get rid of it for decades. Let’s see how long that might take to realize, in realistic space terms, that is. Unless some brave cripple is game enough to spend the rest of his or her life floating in space, the nearest destination that is thought to have an atmosphere that could support human life is 80,000 light-years away. As for me, I’ll stick with the usual mantra: “Five years before we have a cure for paralysis.”

But let’s put our positive thinking caps on and consider that it really might happen, someday. Space travel, that is. Who would be chosen to make a trip just far enough away to experience weightlessness for more than 90 seconds? Well, there’s William Shatner, a kind-of-authentic space veteran, but he’s not paralyzed, just ancient. Then all the other super-wealthy people might have a spare million lying around to layout for a day trip into space.

Here’s a more inclusive idea. Maybe we could get Medicare or Medicaid to cover the cost of just one suborbital flight on the grounds that 90 seconds of weightlessness multiplied by two might prevent pressure sores for a total of three minutes out of 1,440 minutes in a day. You think they might go for that?

What about the FDA approving a jet pack for outer space exploration for quads and paras once they are in orbit? No. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid mucky-mucks must continue to support the “In-the-Home” rule for durable medical equipment (must be used for everyday activities in the home only) — or risk getting stripped of their positions by penny-pinching conservative legislators. Sorry, that wasn’t fair. Conservative legislators aren’t miserly all the time. After all, many of them are happy to approve $1.6 trillion for F-35 Stealth jet-bombers to control global skies. I wonder how many quads we could put into orbit for that amount? Or how many stair-climbing wheelchairs could be distributed to those quads who want to stay put on Planet Earth?

This is a problem that only Jeff Bezos can fix. He is the genius of global delivery systems, right? Just one more step for mankind, and he could be delivering space loads of wheelchair users to Jupiter, or at least the moon. The problem is the moon has just enough gravity that someone with complete paralysis might need a special vehicle to traverse all that sand and moon rock. Like — Bingo! — remember the Moon Rover? Nope. “In-the-Home rule,” again. Sorry, no cigar.

But at least our old buddy Jeff has taken time to create a list of functional requirements that any prospective space traveler has to be able to do to be considered in the first place. Not too bad, really. This is straight from the list: Think you might be able to fasten your seat harness in under 15 seconds or zip yourself into a onesie flight suit? Could be done, yes? What if you need help from time to time from your personal care attendant? Would he or she have to pay the full fare? No problem. Jeff might agree to give them a discount of a few hundred thousand to ride along and zip and unzip. What about peeing or pooping in space? No problem there, either. You won’t be up there long enough in a New Shepard flight (10-12 minutes) to even think of having a bowel movement. And if your plumbing system springs a leak, the pee will probably just float harmlessly around in well-contained bubbles of piss. Sorry, inappropriate word. Only human excrement and bodily fluids are recognized in the official space lexicon.

What else is on the list? A non-disclosure agreement and a waiver that protects Mr. Bezos from being sued for any imaginable reason whatsoever, and even any unimaginable reason, since we’re talking about going where man(kind) has never gone before. What about boarding the flight in the first place? Just how does that happen? Well, according to Jeff’s well-thought-out list of have-to-be-able-to-do’s — you will have to be able to climb a launch tower — here on Planet Earth with the full force of gravity and the extra weight of your space pack — in no more than 90 seconds. What is it about Jeff and 90 seconds, anyway? I could speculate on how that may relate to his sex life and inner compensatory thought processes, but, no, that would not be allowed in any reputable forum, except maybe on Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Kimmel, or the ever-likeable other Jimmy’s show, or a Dave Chapelle monologue.

But let’s get back to reality, to the launch tower. Now that I think of it, maybe there is something to the Tower Phallic Symbol and Bezos’ launch problem. No? OK, the real problem with the launch tower is that it is the equivalent of seven flights of stairs, once again according to Jeff’s own list. That’s a lot of stairs to climb for a complete para or a quad. Unless, of course, they could afford to buy an extra fast, stair-climbing wheelchair. You think Medicare might cover that? No, sorry. In-the-Home rule.

Well, that solves it. We can all get together at my place (definitely in the home) in our manual and power chairs and watch the next billionaire space launch on TV. To gain a sizable market share of viewers, Jeff would have to choose a well-known cripple with plenty of dough to draw in millions of viewers. Let’s see. I nominate a para who’s always in the news these days — Governor Abbott of Texas. Space would be the perfect roaming grounds for him. He has never been a fan of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and he won’t even need it when he is weightless. He could be on that very first 80,000 light-year space flight. Yes, weightlessness forever. No one deserves it more.

Tim Gilmer graduated from UCLA in the late-1960’s, added an M.A. from the Southern Oregon University in 1977, taught writing classes in Portland for 12 years, then embarked on a writing career. After becoming an Oregon Literary Fellow, he went on to join New Mobility magazine in 2000 and edited the magazine for 18 years. He has published upwards of 100 articles, 200 columns, occasional movie reviews and essays. He and Sam, his wife and companion of 47 years, also own and operate an organic farm south of Portland, where they live with their daughter and son-in-law, four grandsons, and a resident barn owl. An excerpt from a memoir about his early post-SCI years, as part of a compendium of his writing over the past 30 years, can be read at his website — All You Need

The National Paralysis Resource Center website is supported by the Administration for Community Living (ACL), U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as part of a financial assistance award totaling $8,700,000 with 100 percent funding by ACL/HHS. The contents are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official views of, nor an endorsement, by ACL/HHS, or the U.S. Government.