Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Wings for a wheelchair - story

"Are you scared?" asked his mother, who had been hiding her own anxiety for weeks.
"No," Peter answered with a faint smile, "I'm happy."

She shook her head doubtfully, but since she was behind him he saw nothing. She pushed the wheelchair along the gravel paths of the park, which took great effort. When would architects understand that people in wheelchairs like to visit the park too? Including those who would like to be astronauts. Peter's mother managed to push her twenty-year-old son's wheelchair as far as the children's playground, where a bout of humiliation was added to her overall concerns. She was never able to avoid the looks of astonishment, and occasionally of anger, thrown at her by the young mothers as she and her adult son intruded into their children's domain so that he could do his daily "Tarzan" training. Using his hands, he would crawl, rock from side to side, and make his way across all the playground equipment to reach the summit, a ten-metre tower from where he would perform his favourite exercises. Today, he did a hundred of them, five at a time, before coming back down, covered in sweat, to the platform closest to his mother, so that she could help him back into his chair.

"You don't understand, Mum; here they think I'm a fool, but up there..."
Peter looked happily upwards, but the sky was obscured from sight by the tops of the tress. "Up there, it's like everyone's in a wheelchair, because of the weightlessness. All those sporty, highly-trained astronauts turn into disableds once they get there. Their strong legs are suddenly useless, dragging behind them and getting in their way. They have to get used to something they find strange. But for me, Mum, since I don't have any legs, I'm sure it'll be easy, even though I've still never been there..."

It had all begun very simply. What could a boy do well, when born with withered lower limbs, no more than tiny stumps emerging from the hips? He could read. And Peter loved to read. What could be better for him than stories, both fictional and real, set in space, where the abnormal could become normal? There had been The Sirens of Titan, The Space Merchants, and one day Peter had discovered Of a Fire on the Moon, Norman Mailer's incredible account of the Apollo programme. He enjoyed reading about "the souls of machines", but he was especially intrigued by the paradox that the Conquerors of Space would come back smiling and happy, but physically weakened and requiring a wheelchair. Just like him, in other words. Later, Peter discovered that during the Apollo 6 mission two astronauts had spent a fortnight sitting in a cabin measuring just 3.3 by 2.3 metres. It was hardly surprising that they had to be carried when they came out! With technological progress, the working capsule provided for the Conquerors of Space had increased in size, but the fact remained that upon landing they were disabled and, like him, needed wheelchairs. But why? This was the question that kept Peter awake at night, so he decided to look into it in depth. And he was amazed by his findings. In weightless conditions, humanity's envoys, fit and highly trained though they were, slowly but surely became shadows of their former selves. In the early days of space flights, the astronauts were so weak after a few days in zero gravity that they could hardly raise their arms, and it would take them a month to be able to do so again. A Russian crew had needed a year to fully recover from a long mission in orbit. They had adapted quickly to weightlessness, and felt perfectly fine while up there. But on their return to Earth the weight of their bodies, all too noticeable once again, presented a major difficulty. They had problems with balance and mobility, and their muscles reacted in odd ways. Some of the crew had to learn to walk again.

All this intrigued Peter. Had he been an astronaut, he would not have this kind of problem on his return. He would come back to what was normal for him: his wheelchair. Nor would he miss his legs in weightlessness; not having to feel them would be an advantage in his favour. He had studied the question in detail: the lower limbs, useless during the flight, represent a major problem for astronauts. Blood accumulates in them, no longer circulating regularly as it does on Earth. The muscles wither away without regular work. Albert Einstein compared the weightlessness of space travel to being in freefall, or as NASA astronaut Dave Wolf put it: "It's like jumping from a tall building and taking two weeks to hit the ground." Muscle mass is lost at around 1% per month, and early reports even referred to rates of 10 to 15%. This often results in the famous "chicken legs", since the lower limbs can be reduced by up to a third when not used. Peter, not having any legs in the first place, would have no concerns about atrophy!

"You're made for it, so get in touch with them!" his friend Veronika would encourage him. They had met at work. Peter was employed by the local police in the town of Trenčín. Six disabled people in wheelchairs took turns in front of the surveillance screens monitoring the most dangerous areas of town. The operators, being involved in a wide range of activities, had much lower concentration levels than Peter and the other disabled workers, who were, for this reason, ten times more efficient in identifying criminals and preventing offences from taking place. The wheelchair operators gained such a reputation that a local television crew even came to film them. Veronika, the journalist, was a petite, friendly woman, always smiling. Peter's case interested her, so they met outside work. She was thrilled by his ideas. "You can't just leave it at that. You have to make this known - you have to propose the idea of a disabled person in space!"

In the café near the local television studio where he had gone to meet Veronika, Peter shook his head sadly over a cup of green tea. "But who can I talk to about it? Who can I go and see?". Veronika understood his concern. Slovakia in Space? Wasn't the very idea absurd? What connection could such a small country possibly have with cosmic travel? Best to forget all about it! However, Slovakia's entry into the European Union in 2004 gave Peter a glimmer of hope. Was it not the case that any EU citizen could take part in the European space station project? Even a disabled person in a wheelchair? That was still a problem. In Bratislava, they acted as if Peter did not exist. The powers-that-be in the capital were ashamed. Send a disabled person in a wheelchair as Slovakia's first representative to the permanent European space station project? Don't be ridiculous!

And yet, Peter pushed ahead with his ideas. The typical perception of an astronaut was based on the assumption that only muscular people could be sent into space, since they would be confined to a small cabin with no opportunity for natural movement. These men and woman who were ideally proportioned for terrestrial existence brought with them the need to maintain their condition (an altogether useless price of baggage!) during their confinement in a space capsule. These heroes of space are like the lions who delight visitors to the zoo by taking a few simple steps backwards or forwards in their cages. To make up for this, specialists recommend that the astronauts ride around comically on wheel-less bicycles inside the space craft. According to the latest information, they also have to wear special trousers designed to maintain blood circulation in the legs. None of this is particularly helpful, and our space explorers have trouble recovering when they return from their record-breaking space-station visits. Hardly surprising, then, that there should be fears of irreversible changes in those participating in long missions. But people in wheelchairs have no such worries. Have they not already become largely accustomed to manoeuvring in a restricted space? Any don't the tight, tube-like corridors in space stations require the use of one's hands to move around? And as for adapting to work in a seated position, weren't disabled people already perfectly suited for that too? Without the distraction of all kinds of physical activities, did they not have excellent powers of concentration? Working on a computer was, for them, their way of keeping in contact with their environment. In addition, their exceptional motivation made up for their disability when it came to competing with those of optimal body shape. What was a hindrance on Earth would become an asset in orbit, an advantage which would allow the most ambitious among them to become equal partners with 'normal' spacemen, if not even better. Space could help them to find release from the isolation in which they lived on Earth. For those who truly persevered, space could thus offer an occupation and give them a goal in life. Their disability was a purely terrestrial restriction. Space would surely be kinder to them.

What Peter needed was a chance to explain all this to someone. In Slovakia, he found not a single attentive ear, other than that of his mother, who listened to what he had to say but despaired of such a crazy scheme. But there was Veronika too, and it was she who decided to act. The perfect opportunity arrived when Veronika was invited to a meeting of regional television representatives from every country in central and eastern Europe at the European Parliament in Strasbourg. Surely there would be someone there who could help Peter or offer him advice! And in the end, Veronika did manage to find the right person, a French participant Marc who found Peter's idea interesting. In actual fact, it was Beatrix he initially found interesting, then Peter's idea. But the important thing was that Peter had a point of contact.

"This is a fantastic opportunity," insisted Veronika when she got back, "You have to seize it." But Peter was reluctant. He had no intention of taking his friend's advice, and above all he refused to listen to her talking about her French suitor. Besides, having an idea is one thing, putting it into practice is quite another. Was Peter capable of realising his dream?

Peter's mother would have preferred to see the idea remain no more than that. But Veronika had decided to act. As a journalist she knew how to carry out research, and also understood what Peter need to know. Such as, for example, the fact that the first Paralympic Games had taken place in Rome as early as 1960. She also managed to contact Štefan Danko, a disabled Slovakian wheelchair user who had been a world champion javelin thrower. And she made sure to tell Peter some recent news about the New Zealand mountain-climber Mark Inglis, who in May 2006, despite having had both legs amputated, had successfully climbed Mont Everest using specially designed prosthetic legs. From there to entering space was just one more step! But none of this would have been enough had not Mark, the French journalist, encouraged by Veronika, found a way of making contact with the ESRC (European Space Research Centre) where they were willing to meet Peter to see if he would be capable of carrying out his project. An invitation from the ESRC duly arrived.

Since then, the mothers have a new attraction at the children's playground. Every day, a young man in a wheelchair arrives and begins climbing, using his hands alone, pulling himself up to the top of the highest piece of equipment, where he does his usual five times one hundred exercises. And when, as she pushes him home along the gravel paths, his mother asks if he is scared, he simply shakes his head. Far from being scared, he is thrilled by the prospect. Up there, he will have wings.

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