Mar 25, 2022

The Right Stuff

Since the beginning of the space program, we’ve always expected astronauts to be fully abled athletic overachievers who are one-part science-geek, two-parts triathlete – a mix the writer Tom Wolfe famously called “the right stuff.”

But what if, this whole time, we’ve had it all wrong?

In this episode, reporter Andrew Leland joins a blind linguistics professor named Sheri Wells-Jensen and a crew of eleven other disabled people on a mission to prove that disabled people have what it takes to go to space. And not only that, but that they may have an edge over non-disabled people. We follow the Mission AstroAccess crew members to Long Beach, California, where they hop on an airplane to take an electrifying flight that simulates zero-gravity – a method used by NASA to train astronauts – and afterwards learn that the biggest challenges to a future where space is accessible to all people may not be where they expected to find them. And our reporter Andrew, who is legally blind himself, confronts some unexpected conclusions of his own.

This episode was reported by Andrew Leland and produced by Maria Paz Gutierrez, Matt Kielty and Pat Walters. Jeremy Bloom contributed music and sound design. Production sound recording by Dan McCoy.

Special thanks to William Pomerantz, Sheyna Gifford, Jim Vanderploeg, Tim Bailey, and Bill Barry

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Citations in this episode

Sheri Wells-Jensen’s SETI Institute presentation
Learn more about Mission AstroAccess
Other work by Andrew Leland

Sheri Wells-Jensen’s, “The Case for Disabled Astronauts,” Scientific American

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LATIF NASSER: Hey, I'm Latif Nasser.

LULU MILLER: I'm Lulu Miller. This is Radiolab.

[Scratchy zipper] 

LULU MILLER: And today we're gonna start …

[background rumble, propeller noise]

ANDREW LELAND: All right, here we go

LULU: With reporter Andrew Leland.

ANDREW LELAND: I'm just gonna hold my  mic like I'm doing karaoke.

LATIF: Where are you on planet Earth? Where are you doing karaoke from?

ANDREW LELAND: I'm in Long Beach, California.

[Helicopter flies by]

ANDREW LELAND: All right. So now I'm just gonna wander around talking to people gathering—gathering it all.

ANDREW LELAND: At a place that they call the FBO, which is like a tiny, private airport. Just one building sitting on a giant tarmac.

[background voices and clanking]

DAN MCCOY: Would you like to do—is there anything left ...?

ANDREW LELAND: And so I walk into this little building through these sliding glass doors, and it's this big, bright room with a giant fish tank in it and these fancy chairs. And it's full …


ANDREW LELAND: ... of people.

SHERI WELLS-JENSEN: Hi, how are we?


ANDREW LELAND: There is a film crew.

ANDREW LELAND: How are you today?

ANDREW LELAND: There's some family members.

ANDREW LELAND: Hey, Anna. Can I come in and linger?

MONA MINKARA: You could always linger, Andrew.

ANDREW LELAND: And the whole place is just sort of abuzz.

[swell of celebratory woo-hoos]

ANDREW LELAND: How's the team—how's the team feeling?

ANNA VOELKER: We're good. Are we good?

ANDREW LELAND: You seem good.

[music: flowing, fast-paced synthesizers.]

ANDREW LELAND: Because today is—after months of preparation—flight day. It's this training flight for potential astronauts to experience near-zero gravity. And so scattered about the room 

ANDREW LELAND: I dig your—your suit.

ANDREW LELAND: Are these people wearing these jumpsuits, these flight suits.

ANDREW LELAND: How you feeling?


ANDREW LELAND: Got your ticket?

SAWYER ROSENSTEIN: Got my boarding pass.

ANDREW LELAND: Got your flight suit. You're ready to rock.

SAWYER ROSENSTEIN: Yeah, rock and roll.

ANDREW LELAND: Some of them look nervous. Some of them …

MONA MINKARA: So we're gonna play a game of cards.

ANDREW LELAND: ... are at a little table.

MONA MINKARA: As a tradition before taking off for our flight. 

ANDREW LELAND: And these people are the people who everybody's here to see. They're known as "The Ambassadors."

[music crests and then fades out]

CADY COLEMAN: So you're one of the ambassadors.


ANDREW LELAND: I should say that I was also wearing a flight suit.


CADY COLEMAN: That's why I'm confused. Okay.

ANDREW LELAND: I'm not. I am press.

CADY COLEMAN: Okay. But you could be.

ANDREW LELAND: I could be, because technically I'm disabled.

[music: low tones, electronic chimes, meandering]

MONA MINKARA: Okay. Take it away, Sina.

SINA BAHRAM: I am still arranging the deck. Don't worry, I'm not fixing it.

ANDREW LELAND: And that's a braille deck.

MONA MINKARA: We're really excited. This is the blind crew!

ANDREW LELAND: Because what this flight day is is essentially an experiment.

MAN: We're gonna head for the plane.

ANDREW LELAND: Okay, let's do it.

ANDREW LELAND: This first step to see what would happen if disabled people were to go to space.

ANDREW LELAND: You ready to rock? Oh, you got it. Thanks, man.

MAN: If you think you're flying today …

ANDREW LELAND: And so these ambassadors …

ANDREW LELAND: Yeah, are we good?

ANDREW LELAND: ... are all people with disabilities.

CE-CE MAZYCK: Yes, I'm ready!

ANDREW LELAND: There are blind people …

SHERI WELLS-JENSEN: What the hell are we doing? Oh my God.

ANDREW LELAND: ... deaf people …

SHERI WELLS-JENSEN: Let my first recorded words be, "What the hell are we doing? Oh my God."

ANDREW LELAND: People who use wheelchairs, people who have prosthetics, who are here to be a part of this experiment.

[background airplane whine]


MAN: Yeah.

ANDREW LELAND: Sure, that's good.

[music becomes spacy, distant]

ANDREW LELAND: And I was there …

ANDREW LELAND: Making our way up to switchback ramp here.

ANDREW LELAND: ... to simply report on it. Basically, I was there to go on this flight as a journalist.

MAN: Good to go?

CE-CE MAZYCK: Good to go?

ANDREW LELAND: Oh my goodness. That was amazing!


[music & airplane abruptly stops]

ANDREW LELAND: ... it's—you know—there is—I'm coming at it from an angle that I'm interested personally.

[Chill but scintillating electronic chimes reprise]

LULU: So Andrew is a writer that we've long admired here at the show. And it was a few months ago that he told us about this effort to get disabled people into space that was just in its kind of early experimental phase. And he really wanted to go. He really wanted to be a part of it and observe it because what they were really up to seemed to be wrapped up in things he thinks about a lot.

ANDREW LELAND: Stuff I think about all the time, which is namely, what does disability mean, and how does the world look at disability? And how does that view need to change?

LATIF: Well, outer space is not the obvious place I would go to for that—answer of that question, I think.

ANDREW LELAND: I'm with you.

LATIF: Well, keep—maybe—maybe just explain, like, what were the steps that brought you to Long Beach to get on this flight thing you're on?

ANDREW LELAND: So I'm legally blind, and I'm getting blinder at a very slow rate.

LATIF: Mm-hmm.

ANDREW LELAND: And I've been writing and thinking about disability—and in particular, blindness—a lot more intensively in the last couple of years as I've kind of hit a new level of vision. And it's put me in touch with the world of blindness. And I've been hearing about …

SHERI WELLS-JENSEN: [escalating singsong] One, two, three. Here's the mic check, and if I get excited I might talk like that.

ANDREW LELAND: ... a woman named Sheri Wells-Jensen for a while.

SHERI WELLS-JENSEN: I won't be doing much singing, I don't think. So that's …

ANDREW LELAND: And it happened that Sheri is one of the key architects of this whole getting disabled people into space thing.

SHERI WELLS-JENSEN: This could really change a lot of things, and so it's humbling and exciting and overwhelming to be part of it.

ANDREW LELAND: Well, so let's start.

SHERI WELLS-JENSEN: And also terrifying.

ANDREW LELAND: Well, before we go deeper into all of that, there's a lot about you that I don't even know in terms of your background and how you got to this point. So can we go back there first and then work our way back?


ANDREW LELAND: So where are you from, Sheri?

SHERI WELLS-JENSEN: I'm from Temperance, Michigan.

ANDREW LELAND: And where is that?

SHERI WELLS-JENSEN: If you hold your hand up like people do when they're from Michigan, Temperance is right down by your wrist on the thumb side.

ANDREW LELAND: It's a pretty small town. Rural. And Sheri was born blind.

SHERI WELLS-JENSEN: But I was a tree-climbing, forest-running child. I wanted to do everything.

ANDREW LELAND: But she said most of her childhood felt like people …

SHERI WELLS-JENSEN: Telling me, "Slow down. Be careful. Stay safely on the ground. Let me literally control where your hands go. And please go sit down and let me take care of you."

ANDREW LELAND: It was suffocating.

SHERI WELLS-JENSEN: Oh, it was a lot.

ANDREW LELAND: But she said she always had this place of refuge.

SHERI WELLS-JENSEN: Outside in the dark at night.

ANDREW LELAND: In her backyard.

[crickets, and music with long, calm tones]

SHERI WELLS-JENSEN: In the quiet, by myself. And I remember just having that sense of, wow! No eyes are on me now. This is just me and the world, and I can move through it gracefully and quietly and intentionally. And I felt powerful, and I felt sleek. And I felt like I had this—I had the night on my own terms. It was all mine.

ANDREW LELAND: And she said that even though she couldn't see the stars, she had that feeling.

SHERI WELLS-JENSEN: The world is so big, and I am so small.

ANDREW LELAND: That sense of awe.

SHERI WELLS-JENSEN: That sense of wonder.

ANDREW LELAND: And she said it was, in part, those nights in her backyard that made her want to become an astronomer.

[airey vibrating harp]


ANDREW LELAND: When she would say this to people, they were like, [dismissively] "Oh, yeah. Yes. Mm-hmm."

SHERI WELLS-JENSEN: I could read the room, and I knew what was going to work and what was going to be a problem.

ANDREW LELAND: So she graduates high school, goes to college …

SHERI WELLS-JENSEN: Discovered linguistics.

ANDREW LELAND: She became a linguist.

SHERI WELLS-JENSEN: And then, so there's only one more sharp curve to go around to get where we are. Skip ahead about 14 years, and I got a—just an email out of nowhere that says, "You know, we're doing the SETI international—the SETI Institute." That's what they call themselves.

ANDREW LELAND: Which is the search for extraterrestrial intelligence people.

SHERI WELLS-JENSEN: "You know, we're doing a seminar on cognition across the cosmos. Would you like to come out here?"

ANDREW LELAND: And they'd gotten ahold of Sheri because she had developed a class in astrolinguistics, which is basically the study of …

SHERI WELLS-JENSEN: [excitedly] What would a truly alien language be like?

ANDREW LELAND: How you're gonna communicate with aliens.

SHERI WELLS-JENSEN: And after I picked myself up off the floor, I tried really hard to write a professional sounding, [mock stiffness] "Oh yes, I believe I can fit that into my schedule, and I'll be happy to attend." All the while I was screaming my head off.

ANDREW LELAND: So she just starts reading anything she can find.

SHERI WELLS-JENSEN: Everything I can get my hands on about extraterrestrial life. And something keeps getting repeated, and the thing that keeps getting repeated is that any intelligent life capable of developing sufficient technology to build a radio telescope will have some analogue of human visual perception.


SHERI WELLS-JENSEN: And I kept reading that, and I kept thinking, "Really? Are you really freaking trying to tell me that you could not have a civilization of blind people who could discover science and build a telescope?? Is that really what you're saying? Because if that is what you're saying, we are gonna have words."


SHERI WELLS-JENSEN: So I wrote this really cool paper about how a blind race of aliens could go through all the steps of growing up and not being eaten by tigers and gathering food, and discovering science and building a telescope. And so I presented this paper at a conference, and we had this lively debate about some of the details. And I thought, "I'm doing it, I'm doing it! I'm showing them and they're getting it." And I could see how talking about blind aliens can make it better for blind people on Earth and make it better for all disabled people on Earth. And I was so happy! And then we get to the end of the paper, and I felt like they were with me, and they believed that I could build a telescope. And then I turned around. There were about two steps down off of the little stage I was on to get back to the seating area. And one of the people who had just agreed with me that blind aliens could smelt metal and build a telescope, leaps up out of his seat, comes running forward and says to me, "Let me help you down those two steps." And I felt like, oh, it's not gonna be that easy.

[music: roaming synth]

ANDREW LELAND: I think that was a turning point for her where she started to think maybe theory isn't enough.

SHERI WELLS-JENSEN: He did not believe I could get down those two steps.

ANDREW LELAND: And instead, she needed to think about people—disabled people, blind people in space, and what a blind astronaut would look like and how that would work.

SHERI WELLS-JENSEN: Because you can't just do that without profoundly changing how disabled people are perceived on Earth.

ANDREW LELAND: And so in 2018, she sits down and writes this article for Scientific American called "The Case for Disabled Astronauts." And the thing I like about it is it's not this sort of bid for inclusion.

SHERI WELLS-JENSEN: It's not just about disabled people going off and being inspirational. It's not "We're gonna give candy canes to disabled kids on Christmas to make them feel better."

ANDREW LELAND: She's sort of making the case that, like, actually, disabled people would make for better astronauts, and they should actually be given a slight preference when you're picking your next flight.

LATIF: Huh. Why? Yeah, why?

ANDREW LELAND: Well, I mean, Sheri likes to say that, like, space is trying to kill you at all times.

SHERI WELLS-JENSEN: We're not evolved to go to space. Everything that we trust and depend on on Earth is just gone! In space, it's just not there.

ANDREW LELAND: I mean, space is, if you think about it, it's this weird, disabling environment.

LATIF: Right.

ANDREW LELAND: And so her point is that people with disabilities, they're already kind of better prepared.

SHERI WELLS-JENSEN: Because the built environment on Earth is not built for you.

ANDREW LELAND: It's built, by and large, for non-disabled people.

SHERI WELLS-JENSEN: So as you move about in your day, you know you're going to have to work around things, things are not going to be accessible to you. Something's gonna go wrong, you're gonna have to figure it out. That skillset is essential for the unpredictable things that can happen to you in space. You never know what the heck is gonna happen, right?

 [ominous music, stern voice, alarm-like beeps] 

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Jerry Linenger:Caution. Warning panels lit up like a Christmas tree. Fire warning lights, smoke warning lights, low voltage lights.]

ANDREW LELAND: So one example is, back in 1997 on the Mir Space Station …

SHERI WELLS-JENSEN: There was a fire.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Jerry Linenger: Blowtorch-like intensity, sparks flying off the end of it.]

ANDREW LELAND: And even though it was a pretty small fire, smoke starts billowing.

SHERI WELLS-JENSEN: Cabin's filling with it.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Jerry Linenger: Can't see the five fingers in front of your face. Headed for a respirator. Fuzzy peripheral vision, needing oxygen.]

ANDREW LELAND: Now the astronauts aboard did get the fire out.

SHERI WELLS-JENSEN: They did a great job using the skillsets that they had.

ANDREW LELAND: But it did take them 14 minutes to extinguish the fire.

SHERI WELLS-JENSEN: Wouldn't it be handy if you had one of your astronauts really good at moving around in the dark, and have a person who the dark doesn't bother?

ANDREW LELAND: Or another example. I don't think people realize that on a space station it's extremely loud.

[blare of ventilation droning]


LATIF: Oh, wow!

ANDREW LELAND: It's quite loud.

LATIF: Yeah, that's pretty loud.

ANDREW LELAND: So there have even been reports of astronauts having hearing damage after spending a long time in space.

SHERI WELLS-JENSEN: But If ASL is your first, or one of your fluent languages …

ANDREW LELAND: Noise doesn't matter.

SHERI WELLS-JENSEN: ... you could still communicate.

ANDREW LELAND: Or imagine …

[muffled, static-y radio communication.] 

ANDREW LELAND: ... you're out on a space walk, and the radio just dies. 

[Radio suddenly cuts out.]

ANDREW LELAND Well, might not be a problem …

SHERI WELLS-JENSEN: If you could sign. You know, and a lot of the time that the astronauts spend now with physical activity, you know, you think about an astronaut's job as being very physical. A lot of very physical activity is the two-and-a-half hours a day they spend doing training.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Jerry Linenger: [whir of ventilation in background] Without constant load on your body, your muscles will start dissolving. Your bones will start getting reabsorbed back into your body.]

SHERI WELLS-JENSEN: Doing physical workouts so they can retain the muscle tone and bone density that they came up with.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, astronaut: Luckily, we have the capability to run here on the space station, too.]

ANDREW LELAND: So every day, they have to ride on stationary bicycles and strap into this special space treadmill.

SHERI WELLS-JENSEN: Well, you don't have to run on the treadmill if your legs already aren't functioning.

ANDREW LELAND: That's time you could spend doing anything else, like research.

LULU: Hmm.

SHERI WELLS-JENSEN: And so we are at the very beginning of space travel, of this whole enterprise of humans moving ourselves off the planet. But because we're at the very beginning of this, and more and more companies and governments are gaining the possibility of putting people in orbit themselves, the question is: how are we gonna do that? If we're really gonna be a civilization that moves more and more people into space—which we could do, right? I don't see any reason we couldn't do that. Then we have a glorious opportunity right this—right now, right now, because we're at the inflection point right now to decide what kind of people are gonna be welcome there and what kind of world are we gonna build off planet?

SHERI WELLS-JENSEN: And so does that world include only the subset, the very small subset of human beings that happen to meet the present restrictions on physical ability to get into space? Or do we want to rethink that, and open up the potential recruits for our astronaut class?

ANDREW LELAND: There's like a common-sense argument that I run up against, which is that, like, yes, like, obviously women are just as capable of being astronauts as men, because we know biologically, scientifically, in every way that women and men are equal in those ways. But then, like, when you try to say the same thing about disability, it's like, "Well, hang on a second. Like, disabled means 'not able,' right? Like, literally the person can't do the same things, you know?" So how do you, like, get past that seemingly, like, very common-sense perspective?

SHERI WELLS-JENSEN: [sharply] And that's not an argument about space. That's an argument about employment. That's an argument about parenting. That's the argument that people have when they allow blind parents to have their children removed. Like, "Oh, you can't possibly parent, you're blind. You can't possibly parent this child, you're disabled." And I'm just done tolerating that sort of stuff, right? Because that comes down to basic disrespect for other human beings, and allowing your own fear and your own headspace to contaminate the way you treat other human beings.

ANDREW LELAND: But it's also an argument about space. I think when people, like, imagine what it takes to pilot a space shuttle, they're imagining all the same things that you need to parent a child or, you know, do all the things that you just listed.


ANDREW LELAND: And I guess, like—yeah.

SHERI WELLS-JENSEN: [irritated] I mean, I get it walking across campus. "How do you know where you're going? What do you think you're doing here? Is there a special program for you? Can I help you get somewhere?" Right? Not "Hello, nice day," but all the other things, right?


SHERI WELLS-JENSEN: And so space, it might be an especially dramatic case, but it's the same case.


SHERI WELLS-JENSEN: But the first step is not, "Hey, I know. Let's send six disabled people to the International Space Station." That's not the smart first move, right? The smart first move is to take a zero-G flight. And then we're gonna be on the path toward something, toward making big change.

ANDREW LELAND: What are we—what are we—what's going on in the plane right now?

LULU: When we come back, we're going to Long Beach, California. 

[exciting synths pick up again]

LULU:  Radiolab will be back in a moment.


LULU: Lulu.

LATIF: Latif.

LULU: Radiolab. Back with burgeoning space astronaut ...

ANDREW LELAND: [chuckles]

LULU: ... reporter Andrew Leland. So you—okay, but so how do we go from Sheri, like, having this kind of amazing idea that seems borne of her childhood and borne of some real frustration and other things, into this article, great thinkpiece, loving it, clicking, to what the heck is happening?

LATIF: Yeah.

LULU: Up-down in—in Long Beach?

ANDREW LELAND: Yeah. So Sheri put out that piece in the middle of 2018.

SHERI WELLS-JENSEN: I was minding my own business when, about 10 months ago I guess it was by now ...

ANDREW LELAND: She gets a call from George T. Whitesides.

LULU: Dun dun duh—who the heck is that? [laughs]

ANDREW LELAND: He's the former chief of staff of NASA under Obama.

LULU: Ooh!

ANDREW LELAND: And also on the line was Anna Voelker.

ANNA VOELKER: The founder of SciAccess, a non-profit organization dedicated to accessibility of the STEM fields to disabled adults and children.

ANDREW LELAND: They told Sherri, "We read your article. We've also been thinking about this stuff for a long time."

SHERI WELLS-JENSEN: "And we're interested in staffing a parabolic flight full of disabled people of all sorts."

ANDREW LELAND: "Do you want to be a part of it?"

SHERI WELLS-JENSEN: Yes. Absolutely. Aaaaaaaah! [laughs]

ANDREW LELAND: So what happens then? How does it all come together?

SHERI WELLS-JENSEN: What do you mean? After the screaming fit? [laughs]

ANDREW LELAND: Why—why are you screaming? Like, explain to me ...

SHERI WELLS-JENSEN: It's just that sense of somebody really believes. Really believes and is really gonna—is really committed to this theme.

[music: persistent, cyclical, velvety notes

ANDREW LELAND: So on October 14, I went to Long Beach to see how this was all gonna play out. But also, I had a seat on the plane.

[music brightens, soars]

ANDREW LELAND: Something about my body shape and that it's the way this fits me, it feels much more like sanitation worker than astronaut to me.

ANDREW LELAND: So I get my flight suit on. I go gather with everybody.

GEORGE T. WHITESIDES: Hello. Welcome to Los Angeles slash Long Beach. [cheering]

ANDREW LELAND: And after the welcome, I start meeting everybody. There are NASA people.

[music builds in speed and density. Exciting.]

WOMAN: I'm a planetary scientist.

ANDREW LELAND: Scientists. I meet George ...

ANDREW LELAND: Hey, George. I'm Andrew Leland.

ANDREW LELAND: ... T. Whitesides.

LULU: Does George T. Whitesides have long, white sideburns?

ANDREW LELAND: No, ma'am. He does not.

ANDREW LELAND: How are you feelin' this morning?


ANDREW LELAND: He's like, clean-cut Princeton guy.

GEORGE T. WHITESIDES: So exciting to have everybody together.

ANDREW LELAND: And then I meet the crew.

WOMAN: Welcome.

ANDREW LELAND: ... the ambassadors.

ANDREW LELAND: Hey, are you Victoria?

VICTORIA: Hey, yeah!

ANDREW LELAND: I wanted to introduce myself. I'm Andrew Leland.

ANDREW LELAND: There were 12 total. Two of them were deaf.

ANDREW LELAND: Tell me about what's going through your mind.

MAN: Right now I can just say I'm very excited.

ANDREW LELAND: Six have mobility disabilities, which means they use a wheelchair or a 

prosthetic. And four of them were blind.

WOMAN: Hey Andrew!

ANDREW LELAND: How's it going?

WOMAN: Good. It's nice to meet you in person!

ANDREW LELAND: I know! Finally.

ANDREW LELAND: One of whom was, of course ...



SHERI WELLS-JENSEN: How are you, my friend?

ANDREW LELAND: I'm good. Oh, sorry. I just bumped into you.

SHERI WELLS-JENSEN: I'm freaked out. I'm overwhelmed.


SHERI WELLS-JENSEN: I touched a thing that's going to space.

ANDREW LELAND: And so the plan for today is that all of us are gonna get on this plane and of what is called a parabolic flight.

[music stops]

LATIF: Right. And can you just—can you just explain, like, what that is, actually?

ANDREW LELAND: So really simply, you're on a plane.

[Music: Surging energy]

ANDREW LELAND: The plane starts to ascend, and somewhat violently up. Like, the nose is pointing 45 degrees into the sky. And then at, like, 32,000 feet, the pilot cuts the thrust of the engines and starts to level the plane back out.

[intense whirs replaced by gentle piano music by Debussy]

ANDREW LELAND: And it's in that moment, because of physics, gravity starts to get canceled out. And what you get is this little window of, like, 20 to 30 seconds where you feel weightless, where you feel like you're just floating in space.

SHERI WELLS-JENSEN: Kind of incredible, really.

ANDREW LELAND: Well, I'm—I'm wondering what—like, what exactly is the question you all are trying to answer with this flight?

SHERI WELLS-JENSEN: The question? I think the question is: what is zero G like for disabled people, and what do we need to do to make it accessible? What problems are we gonna find? So we're sort of out there looking for problems.

WOMAN: So if you guys wanna pick your sound, then I can program them.

SHERI WELLS-JENSEN: So for blind people floating in zero gravity, do we in fact need some kind of device ...

WOMAN: I don't—I don't ...

SHERI WELLS-JENSEN: ... that will help you always know where the nominal floor is?

[Tinny, toy-like classical melodies. Sheri giggles.]

ANDREW LELAND: Because on these flights, the most important thing is can you float up and then find your way back down to where you started from without hurting anybody? So before the flight, the blind crew was testing out these different ringtones ...

[sound changes to catchy, 8-bit accordion]

WOMAN: [laughs] I want this one!

ANDREW LELAND: ... that might help them orient themselves. Because Sheri's like, we don't know what happens when you're blind in zero G.

[series of electronic sounds: flute twitter, snippet of a melody, chimes, siren, drum sticks] 

SHERI WELLS-JENSEN: Do you just panic and roll into a little ball and cry?

ANDREW LELAND: Like, there's all these things they don't know.

[voices continue in the background] 

SHERI WELLS-JENSEN: How much of an inconvenience are legs that you can't control in zero gravity?

ANDREW LELAND: How do you alert a deaf person that they need to get back to their seat?

SHERI WELLS-JENSEN: You can't stomp on the floor and use the vibrations to help get attention. So what's—what's ideal?

ANDREW LELAND: Is it like a light?

SHERI WELLS-JENSEN: A little stock ticker thing?

ANDREW LELAND: In some ways, the fundamental question is just: what happens to you then you're disabled ...

SHERI WELLS-JENSEN: ... in zero gravity? I mean, we don't know that until we do the investigation.


ANDREW LELAND: Look at that plane!

[airplane idling]

[music: anticipatory, resonant plucks]

ANDREW LELAND: Sunday morning, 10:30 a.m., we all board this plane.

ANDREW LELAND: Hey! Oh. Oh, sorry.

ANDREW LELAND: It's a normal plane except once you get inside, it's like you've entered a tube of toothpaste or something.

LATIF: Huh. Why is that?

ANDREW LELAND: Well, in the main cabin there's no seats. And it's just lined with these, like, bright white gym mats. But in the back, there are a few rows of seats, and so I went and sat down there with everybody.

ANDREW LELAND (on flight): Well, this feels like a commercial airliner, right?

SHERI WELLS-JENSEN: I'll strap myself in so I don't run for it.

WOMAN: I know. We got middle seats. [laughs]

ANDREW LELAND: And apparently, there's an area in the far back of the plane called "The Pain Cave," where if you start to feel real bad you can go there ...

LATIF: Feel bad like ...?

[Music stops]

ANDREW LELAND: Well, the plane is known as "The Vomit Comet."

LATIF: Oh, right. Because of the—duh.

ANDREW LELAND: But anyway ...

SHERI WELLS-JENSEN: Dear past self: what the fuck were you thinking?

ANDREW LELAND: Doors close, and pretty quick …

[Synthesizers rev]

ANDREW LELAND: The plane is moving!

ANDREW LELAND: ... we take off.

[cheering and engine acceleration]

ANDREW LELAND: Here we go!

ANDREW LELAND: And we fly out over the Pacific Ocean, north of San Francisco.

[music: synthesizers race in and out, building adrenaline]

MAN: Everybody okay?

WOMAN: Yeah, I'm all right. I'm just chilling.

ANDREW LELAND: And they start bringing people out into the main ...

MAN: The blind group is going, huh?

ANDREW LELAND: ... area with the padding.

MAN: All right. Here we go!

WOMAN: Oh, two minutes!

ANDREW LELAND: Everybody kind of takes their positions.

WOMAN: You said they did install them? They did? You said they did or they didn't?

ANDREW LELAND: The blind crew's checking on their sound system. I see one guy lying on a mat who uses a wheelchair. He's got a strap around his legs.

MAN: With the hope being that it is tight enough to keep my legs spreading apart and doing a split.

ANDREW LELAND: Everybody's getting ready, and then ...

MAN: Now we're heading up, up the hill.

ANDREW LELAND: ... the plane starts climbing.

[Music ascends]

MAN: I can feel it. Oh my goodness!

MAN: Lay down!

ANDREW LELAND: We get up to 20,000 feet. 25,000. 30,000.

ANDREW LELAND: And then at 32,000 feet ...

[people yelling]

ANDREW LELAND: ... we enter zero gravity. 

[music mellows suddenly]


ANDREW LELAND: And suddenly, people are just floating everywhere.

MAN: Holy shit!

ANDREW LELAND: Bouncing off the walls.

[excited chatter]

ANDREW LELAND: And there are just all these bodies moving around in space. And it's 

pretty chaotic.

[giddy exclamations]

ANDREW LELAND: And disorienting. But it's like, you get a peek into this other world and then it's like zhooop!

[background noise and music cuts]

ANDREW LELAND:  In, like, 20 seconds gravity's back.

ANDREW LELAND: It's extremely disorienting. I forgot which way the floor was, but I found it. If I was totally blind I'm trying to imagine how I would be doing this.

ANDREW LELAND: So the plan is we're gonna do 15 parabolas. And as we keep going ...

[crowd yelling]

ANDREW LELAND: ... I'm trying to get around and talk to people and observe things. And I'm in a snowglobe that a toddler is shaking every minute.

ANDREW LELAND (On flight): I don't think a single person is doing an experiment on this plane. Just the—just the getting through each parabola is an experiment.

ANDREW LELAND: And then I find out later that the blind crew, those sound devices that they brought aren't working because it's too loud on the plane for them to hear. And every time I feel like I'm trying to get a handle on something, somebody starts yelling ...

WOMAN: Feet down!

ANDREW LELAND: "Feet down! Feet down!" But eventually, I do make my way up to the blind group.

ANDREW LELAND (On flight): How are you doing?

ANDREW LELAND: And they're like ...

WOMAN: Dude, it's amazing!

ANDREW LELAND  (On flight): ... this is incredible.

ANDREW LELAND: Sheri, how are you?


ANDREW LELAND  (On flight): Everything's going good?

SHERI WELLS-JENSEN: Awesome! So good!

ANDREW LELAND  (On flight): Have you had trouble, like, bumping into anybody or, like, finding the floor or anything?


ANDREW LELAND  (On flight): Oh shit, I think we're—is it starting again? I'm gonna lie down.

[music: graceful piano by Debussy resumes]

ANDREW LELAND: And as we all float up again, I start to realize that people are figuring it out.  Like, they're all doing the thing. They're floating up off the floor and safely floating back down. And it's happening over and over again.

ANDREW LELAND (On flight): Eric is doing, like, breakdancing disco moves. Monica is doing some—oh, lie back down. Lie back down.

ANDREW LELAND: And while we were up there, we also did these parabolas that simulated...

MAN: Welcome to the moon!

ANDREW LELAND: ... gravity on the moon.

SHERI WELLS-JENSEN: [singing merrily] I love the moon! I love the moon! I can do all the yoga on the moon.

ANDREW LELAND: And gravity on Mars.

SHERI WELLS-JENSEN: I like Mars! Mars, whoo!

ANDREW LELAND: And at a certain point ...

ANDREW LELAND  (On flight): I'm having kind of an emotional reaction to that.

ANDREW LELAND: ... I just felt overwhelmed. No one's in the Pain Cave, no one's getting sick. Like, they're able to do this.

ANDREW LELAND  (On flight): Here comes another one.

[crowd yelling]

ANDREW LELAND (On flight): Mona seems extremely happy. And Sheri looks honestly like a Buddha.

[more yips and yells from the crowd]

ANDREW LELAND  (On flight): Oh, there's little droplets of water. There's water floating all through the cabin in little beautiful orbs. And my legs are reaching the ceiling. I see Ce-Ce, her mouth is open wide. And we're coming down.

[whoos and yelps]

ANDREW LELAND  (On flight): Straight and level, we're done.

[applause and cheering]

PILOT: [over an intercom] Ladies and gentlemen, welcome back to Long Beach where the local time is 2:59. Please remain seated.

ANDREW LELAND: So we make it back down to Earth.

[crowd applauds]

ANDREW LELAND: We deplane. We have some snacks. There's lots of hugs. And that's pretty much it.

[Gentle synth melody]


LULU: So okay, they land and, like, scientifically what did the flight show us? Like, what did it prove?

ANDREW LELAND: They found that between 70 and 90 percent of the times that an ambassador left their yoga mat or their station, they were able to return to it.

LULU: Huh.

LATIF: And that's like—how does that check against their expectations or ...?

ANDREW LELAND: I think they were very happy with that.

LULU: And was there—was it truly just like, can disabled people hack it in a space flight, or was there—was anyone looking specifically at could they make better astronauts than non-disabled people?

ANDREW LELAND: Honestly, I don't think that they were testing against non-disabled 

astronauts on this flight.

LULU: Mm-hmm.

ANDREW LELAND: I mean, it was a really tiny mission compared to being in actual space, you know, like to being an astronaut. But I will say that when I was on the plane, I did feel like there were some moments when that huge distance between what it takes to be an astronaut, to go on a mission to Mars, and what was happening on this plane, that huge distance felt like it started to collapse a little bit.

[music: slow floating synths]

LULU: Hmm.

ANDREW LELAND: Like, there was one moment with Mary Cooper, who's a Stanford undergrad who has a prosthetic leg, one of her goals was to, like, remove her prosthetic leg and reattach it in microgravity, you know? And so she did that test, which is fine. But then she also, like, took it off, held it in her hand and spun it.

LULU: Huh.

[music swells, pulses]

ANDREW LELAND: So that it was, like, spinning on its axis and kind of rotating. You know, doing this very graceful microgravity balletic turn in space. And as her leg was just floating there between us, I just looked at her and I was like, "You are totally an astronaut right now."

[music simmers with possibility]

SHERI WELLS-JENSEN: We can do this. Disabled people can be astronauts. It's clear to me.

ANDREW LELAND: Sheri Wells-Jensen again.

SHERI WELLS-JENSEN: And so I felt powerful and confident and joyful.

 [music fades out]

SHERI WELLS-JENSEN:But we didn't flick a switch and change the world. I can tell that by the next two times I went through airports. You know what I mean by my airport situation, right?


LATIF: Wait, what's the airport situation?

ANDREW LELAND: So after the flight, Sheri left Long Beach and flew up to Berkeley to visit some friends. And as she was getting off the plane and, like, walking up the jetway, these guys came up behind her and started directing her.

SHERI WELLS-JENSEN: Like, three guys behind me in the jetway going, "A little bit left, a little bit right." It's like they were trying to—I should have turned around and said "If y'all want a remote-controlled car go buy one."

ANDREW LELAND: [chuckle]

SHERI WELLS-JENSEN: [emphatically] "I would just like to walk down the freakin' jetway in peace. Could you stop?"


SHERI WELLS-JENSEN: "Could you stop? Could you please just—Jesus, could you please stop? Stop, stop! Stop!!"

ANDREW LELAND: She's thinking, like, I just did this thing that, you know, is this brand new, never been done before historical thing, and these guys still can't conceive of me as being able to, like, walk in a hamster tube.

SHERI WELLS-JENSEN: And so in some ways, what we've done is widen the gap between what's possible and what's expected.

ANDREW LELAND: Wait, you widened it or you narrowed it?

SHERI WELLS-JENSEN: I think we widened it because we pushed what's possible out of step. Like, we went on this parabolic flight and it was like, "Oh, look at that! These disabled people can do that." But the expectations didn't change.


SHERI WELLS-JENSEN: Right? That gap between what I understand we can do and how we are still treated and what the expectations on Earth still are is a horrible yawning gap. And it's bigger than I thought it was because the positive end has been moved up, right? So I know that I can be an astronaut, and yet when I walk through an airport, people treat me like a drunken golden retriever.

ANDREW LELAND: It reminds me of the way you described microgravity where, like, you push against the wall and you sort of go flying in the other direction. It's almost like this project in some ways. Like, you gave this wall a big shove, and instead of the wall moving, like, you kind of went tumbling.

SHERI WELLS-JENSEN: Ha! I think that's—I think that makes really good sense. It was emotionally quite distressing, quite disorienting to me to return after this amazing flight and to realize the world remains unchanged.

ANDREW LELAND: And I have to say I had my own sort of complicated upside down experience of watching these possibilities get pushed out further.

[Crowd chatter and joyful yelling. “Zero two...”]

[Celestial, pointillist, synth notes]

ANDREW LELAND (On flight): I am floating up from the ground.

ANDREW LELAND: Like, around the end of the first set of parabolas ...

ANDREW LELAND (On flight): I see Eric flying ...

ANDREW LELAND: There was this moment where Eric and Sawyer, who were in the mobility group, sort of floated into standing positions.

MAN: All right. So apparently, in lunar gravity I can stand. So that's cool.

ANDREW LELAND: And I started crying.

ANDREW LELAND (On flight): I'm having kind of an emotional reaction to that.

ANDREW LELAND: And I really didn't want to be crying.

ANDREW LELAND (On flight): I can't imagine doing this with people who can walk.

ANDREW LELAND: And I felt really bad that I was crying. And ...

LATIF: Why would you feel bad about that?

ANDREW LELAND: It seemed to come out of this sense of liberation. That, like, you know, the wheelchair user—wheelchair—that, like, their disability had been erased and that's a thing to celebrate. Because that goes against everything that I'm trying to understand and sort of frame—situate myself towards, right? Like, I feel like as I become more blind, it's really complicated for me because, like, what I'm going through right now is a loss, and I'm experiencing it as a loss. Like, it's a literal loss, but there's all this emotional loss connected to it too. But at the same time, like, I am recognizing elements of blindness that are interesting. And, like, it's tricky. Like, part of me wants to, like, go with the Sheri route of being, like, "And maybe even it's making me better," you know? And I'm not there yet. But at the very least, I don't want to see disability as a negative trait that should be erased.


ANDREW LELAND: Let me ask you in terms of the flight.

ANDREW LELAND: So after Sheri told me about her complicated reaction to the flight ...

ANDREW LELAND: And I started crying.

ANDREW LELAND: I told her about mine.

ANDREW LELAND: And then afterwards, I was sort of ashamed. Like, why was I crying? 

And was I like—you know—do you think that my reaction was problematic in that way?

SHERI WELLS-JENSEN: No, no, no. That's different. Those people were genuinely feeling joy.


SHERI WELLS-JENSEN: They weren't being manipulated. They didn't walk away feeling like shit and you were happy.


SHERI WELLS-JENSEN: They were genuinely joyful about a new experience with their own bodies which belong to them. And I try to be super fair about this, I think, if there were a zero-g parabola and I went through it, and I could see for a minute— if I could see light and color like I did when I was a tiny, tiny child, I would have been—I would have been somewhere else. I would have been elated, I would have been joyful. That's a new—that experience is not a bad experience. I think that the harm comes when we use that joyful experience as a weapon against your ordinary experience.

ANDREW LELAND: What do you mean? What does that mean?

SHERI WELLS-JENSEN: It means that that would not make my life as a blind human being less valuable, or it wouldn't mean that I was now going to struggle all my life to return to the zero-g state so I could see again. Like, I don't want to use that experience of being different as explosives against my ordinary experience, which is not seeing. It would be such a relief to have that experience without having to have people feel sorry for you later that it went away.

ANDREW LELAND: Let me ask you one more question about you, though, about this gap that you've talked about. If the flight is actually making the gap bigger, then why are you planning future flights?

SHERI WELLS-JENSEN: Oh, because the gap has always been there, right? It's not like I discovered it, right? It just—I just had a particularly vicious [chuckles] experience of the gap, and that doesn't mean—I mean, because these flights make it better, right? In the end, these flights are going to make it better. I'm not a patient person, but I'm willing to take the long view when I have to, that we're making things better by doing the work of gathering the data that we need that will eventually make things more accessible, that will eventually change lives, that will eventually destroy the gap.

[music: rolling, expansive synths]

LULU: Reporter Andrew Leland.

LATIF: This episode was produced by Maria Paz Gutiérrez, Matt Kielty and Pat Walters. Jeremy Bloom contributed music and sound design. Production sound recording by Dan McCoy. 

Thank you to so many people—here we go—all the Mission AstroAccess Ambassadors, including and especially Sheri Wells-Jensen, Dana Bolles, Apurva Varia, Eric Ingram, Mary Cooper, Mona Minkara, Sina Bahram, Zuby Onwuta, Ce-ce Mazyck, Viktoria Modesta, Eric Shear and Sawyer Rosenstein.


Plus additional thanks to George Whitesides,  Anna Voelker, Ann Kapusta, Jamie Molaro, Erik Virre, J.D. Polk, Cady Coleman, Shannon Finnegan, Sharon von See, April Jackson, Eboni Gaytan, and Annie Dieckman.


LATIF: I'm Latif Nasser. This is Radiolab. Thank you for listening.


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