One Small Role for a Miami Man, One Giant Leap for People With Disabilities

Miami podcaster Rhonel Cinous (r) and Vincenzo Piscopo, CEO of United Spinal Association, at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.
Miami podcaster Rhonel Cinous (r) and Vincenzo Piscopo, CEO of United Spinal Association, at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. Photo by United Spinal Association
Rhonel Cinous, a podcaster and former radio host, has always been a techie.

His interest in adaptive and voice-controlled technology arose after he experienced a severe spinal cord injury in a snorkeling accident in 2016 during his first visit to Haiti, his family’s home country.

Following his recovery, the Miami-based Cinous never imagined he would contribute to a NASA space mission. But this month, he found himself at the Johnson Space Center in Houston as part of a virtual team testing out Callisto, a communication technology project for the Artemis I mission's Orion spacecraft.

"I was awestruck when I found out I was part of the crew," says Cinous, who uses a power wheelchair for mobility. "This is the first time something like this has been attempted, and I’m humbled I was a part of it and represented the disability community."

Cinous was at the Johnson Space Center between December 8 and 10 to remotely send voice commands to Amazon's virtual assistant Alexa onboard the unmanned Orion spacecraft during its mission to orbit the moon. Carried out in partnership with Lockheed Martin, Amazon, and Cisco, the Callisto project aimed to show how voice-command technology could help out astronauts on future missions.

Cinous' visit started with a tour of NASA facilities, which included seeing full-sized and scaled models of the International Space Station and Orion capsule. The facilities were largely wheelchair accessible, and a video screen linked to cameras inside the model crafts allowed Cinous to explore visually. “We walked and rolled past space suits and where the astronauts train,” he says.

Next came the working part of the trip.

"It’s like every science fiction movie — you roll down a long hallway with no windows. Then you come into a room with super-intelligent engineers and scientists," Cinous says.

"We basically walked through what astronauts would do: wake up the system, garner oxygen levels in the capsule, check the speed and velocity of Orion, and gauge the distance between the spacecraft to destinations like the Earth or moon," he says. "Just like I ask Alexa at home, we told it to play music — who wouldn’t want a little ambiance music in space? The scientists created a customized rap. Then we altered the lighting a bit to make it more festive."

Cinous is active in the United Spinal Association, a leading national nonprofit advocate for wheelchair users and people living with spinal cord injuries and disorders. He participates in United Spinal’s tech group and hosts the Ramp. It. Up! podcast.

Amazon got involved in developing Callisto and testing commercial technologies, in this case, Alexa, to see how the company could assist crewed missions to the moon and beyond. The company wanted a diverse group of virtual team members, so it reached out to United Spinal, and Cinous became part of the program. He joined representatives from the space, science, and education sectors.

"What I found to be the most exciting was looking at a live view — pictures that Orion took of the moon and Earth. The engineers were repositioning the capsule, so we saw it moving in real time," he says. "When it was facing the sun, it was bright in the cockpit. Then it rotated, and sun moved across windows of the shuttle. Depending on where the camera was pointing, we could see the completely black darkness of space."

Amazon says voice technology has the potential to make astronauts’ jobs simpler and more efficient onboard the Orion spacecraft. Virtual crew members like Cinous simulated potential Alexa interactions with future astronauts, asking the voice AI to fulfill various requests.

"When you are physically there, right where everyone has heard the phrase 'Houston, we have a problem,' you think about all the sacrifice that astronauts and scientists put into this," he says. "You also think about all the innovations in engineering, GPS, vaccines — that have come from space exploration. Who knows, someday, using the weightlessness of being in space, they could have a doctor onboard researching spinal cord injuries. Or maybe ultralight, super-strong materials developed could help build a better wheelchair."

Cinous has become a leading voice for United Spinal’s Tech Access Initiative, advocating for inclusive technology that will help empower other wheelchair users to find greater independence and quality of life.

"For many members of the disability community, voice AI can make daily activities that were once challenging much easier, so we have more time to pursue our goals and aim for the stars. I hope to use this opportunity to raise awareness of the power of our voices and the importance of developing cutting-edge technology that is inclusive to all," Cinous adds.

Before his injury, the Brooklyn-born, Miami-raised Cinous hosted the Morning Drive on WSRF 1580 AM alongside his cohosts Rebecca Laratte and Fabiola Charles. It was a slice of multicultural Miami; the broadcast was split between Haitian Creole and English.

Cinous did his rehabilitation at Jackson Memorial Hospital and credits the "amazing staff" there. He also praises the fully accessible gym and community built at the world-renowned Miami Project to Cure Paralysis.

Always an avid reader and learner, Cinous has used Amazon’s Kindle to digest vast volumes of content. Post-injury, he explored the possibilities of voice-activated commands via his smartphone. Lately, he has been using an Echo Dot to interact with Alexa.

"I’ve always had a heart for service, a desire to use my communication skills to help others. Sharing my life of living with spinal cord injury, it shows wheelchair users can live exciting, productive lives," Cinous says.

"This is a bigger story than my own. It is about rebuilding a life and now testing voice AI on a spacecraft," he says. "If one person, one child, one adult looks at this and the takeaway is to go above and beyond any limitations they have — or that people put on them — it will be a successful mission."
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Steve Wright posts disability advocacy and Universal Design ideas daily at his blog, Urban Travel, Sustainability & Accessibility.

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