South African activist to become first disabled person in space

Eddie Ndopu wants to become the first disabled person in space. Pic: Siya Mkhasibe.

Eddie Ndopu wants to become the first disabled person in space. Pic: Siya Mkhasibe.

Published Jan 28, 2019


Eddie Ndopu, a South African activist and humanitarian, has plans to book a flight on a commercial trip into space and deliver an address to the UN while he’s up there.

MTV has announced that they will document Eddie Ndopu's trip.

The 28-year-old South African was diagnosed with spinal muscular atrophy at birth and given a life expectancy of five years. He has since gone on to become an internationally recognised human rights advocate for disabled young people and earned a master’s degree in public policy from Oxford University.

He is recognised as one of the World's Top 30 Thinkers Under 30 and one of the 50 Most Powerful Disabled People on the Planet.

His global startup Evolve Initiative  has influenced public policy and advocated social transformation for people with disabilities.

In 1961, a college student named David Myers travelled from Washington, DC, to the US Naval School of Aviation Medicine in Florida to take part in a new experiment. “I had a very limited understanding of what I was getting myself into,” Myers told me recently over email. “So I was extremely curious and mildly excited that first day.”

Myers was one of 11 men specifically recruited to help test the feasibility of human spaceflight, at a time when nobody knew whether the human body could withstand a trip beyond our atmosphere. 

For nearly a decade, the US Navy put 11 deaf men through countless tests. Four of the men spent 12 straight days inside a 20-foot room that rotated constantly. In another experiment, they were sent out to notoriously rough seas off the coast of Nova Scotia. On the boat, the men played cards while the researchers were so overcome with seasickness that they had to cancel the test and go home. Others were sent up in the so-called “Vomit Comet,” an aircraft designed to simulate zero gravity. 

Ten out of the 11 men had become deaf because of spinal meningitis, an infection of the fluid in the spinal cord. The infection ultimately damaged each man’s inner ear, including their vestibular system, which also happens to be the system that is mainly responsible for motion sickness. This made the men perfect test subjects for a space program that was trying to understand what might happen to people in places where the inner ear can’t sense up and down. 

The assumption has long been that travelling to space is a mentally and physically gruelling endeavour and only the strongest, smartest, most adaptable among can achieve this. But strength comes in many forms, and if you want to find people who are the best at adapting to worlds not suited for them,  looking at people with disabilities, who navigate such a world every single day. 

Disabled people will fare better in space because disabled people have learned to negotiate hostile situations in ways that able-bodied people are completely unaware of.

We have all seen videos of astronauts bouncing around the space station using their arms and legs to push off surfaces and direct their motion. This is a type of movement that people who use wheelchairs and other mobility aids are already familiar with. In fact, the various devices and ways of moving the body in space are likely more familiar to people with disabilities than to able-bodied people. 

Astronauts come via the military and that’s a closed door for disabled individuals,” Myers says. “Those kinds of obstacles need to be removed for those individuals who are otherwise qualified.” And NASA itself has had no reason to rethink their stance because no one has really pushed them to. 

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