Inspiring surgeon who lost both legs could be among world’s first para-astronauts

EXETER, United Kingdom — A surgeon specializing in amputations, who lost both of his own legs, is now on a shortlist to travel into space! Neil Hopper would be one of the world’s first para-astronauts.

Hopper lost his limbs in 2019 due to sepsis. Just four years later, he is now on the list in the European Space Agency’s search for an astronaut with a disability. The Consultant Vascular Surgeon at the Royal Cornwall Hospital Trust has performed hundreds of amputations in his career. After he lost his toes and much of the skin on the underside of his feet, leg amputation was the only option.

The Welsh-speaking surgeon is now also the feature of a new Welsh-language documentary “Drych: Camau Tua’r Sêr,” available on the BBC iPlayer. The documentary follows his progress towards heading into space, following the ESA’s first para-astronaut John McFall, who was selected in November of 2022.

“When I saw the advertisement from the European Space Agency for a para astronaut, I had to put in an application,” says Hopper, a space fanatic and Senior Clinical Lecturer at the University of Exeter, in a media release.

“The criteria were quite specific; you had to have a doctorate in engineering or medicine, you had to have a disability below the knee, and you had to speak a second language – hey, Welsh! At first my wife Rachel thought I was completely crazy!”

European Space Agency astronaut space walk
ESA (European Space Agency) astronaut Luca Parmitano rides the Canadarm2 robotic arm (Credit: Openverse)

Hopper is still contributing to the field of medicine

The double-amputee says he received advice to change careers after losing his legs in 2019. Since then, however, he has made vital contributions to the field of amputation.

“I remember imagining the operation – operations which I do all the time, and thinking that power tools were going to be used on me. That was really difficult to process,” Hopper describes.

“I was in hospital for about six or seven weeks. The physical changes in my body were fairly easy to understand, but what I didn’t understand were the psychological changes and how hard it was just to fit back into family life.”

“I was starting to think I’d never be able to go back to work, I’d never be able to play football with my son, walk the dog on the beach – that’s the kind of mindset I had. But once I got legs, things started to change overnight, the future didn’t look so bleak,” the aspiring astronaut continues.

“I was determined to go back to work. I wanted to prove that they were completely wrong. Throughout my career I’d always tried to imagine what it was like to have an amputation, so I didn’t expect to get the answer. I didn’t think I’d get the chance to see what it’s like on the other side of the knife. My experience has made me think more about how I communicate with patients. I believe it has made me a better doctor,” Hopper says.

South West News Service writer Ed Cullinane contributed to this report.

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