NASA (almost) made history with a female-only spacewalk

By Sofia Gallarate

Updated May 19, 2020 at 01:55 PM

Reading time: 2 minutes

March marked Women’s History Month, and so it made perfect sense that NASA planned on executing the first all-female spacewalk in history right before the month was over (in case you aren’t familiar with the term, spacewalk is when astronauts go outside the spacecraft and enter into floating space). But just as the world was gearing up to witness astronauts Anne McClain and Christina Koch undertake this historical spacewalk outside the International Space Station, NASA had to abort the mission, and the all-female spacewalk never took place.

As absurd as it sounds, the reason behind this last-minute change of plan was the absence of two female spacesuits in the right size for both Koch and McClain, and in light of this shortage, Christina Koch did the spacewalk alongside fellow male astronaut Nick Hague, while Anne McClain had no choice but to assist them from inside the station.

The two astronauts were set to install lithium-ion batteries for the space station’s solar arrays, and in order to do so, they realised they both needed a medium-sized Hard Upper Torso (HUT), which is the upper part of a spacesuit. Unfortunately though, there was only one available for use. The understandable and expected public backlash didn’t take long to reach NASA’s PR office, and on Tuesday March 26, the agency tweeted, “We’ve seen your tweets about spacesuit availability for Friday’s spacewalk. To clarify, we have more than 1 medium size spacesuit torso aboard, but to stay on schedule with @Space_Station upgrades, it’s safer & faster to change spacewalker assignments than reconfigure spacesuits.”

According to NASA spokeswoman Stephanie Schierholz, spacewalks are the most physically challenging performances astronauts have to undergo—it goes without saying that it is necessary for the spacesuits to fit perfectly. As NASA stated, it’s clear that the crew made the safest and most convenient decision for the operation, but this event brought to the surface an ongoing issue regarding NASA’s gender imbalance. The truth is that the space agency is still using the same spacesuits that were designed and produced 40 years ago, when women astronauts were just starting to be accepted into the profession (Sally Ride became the first woman in space in 1983).

“Some groups initially assumed that women could fit in the same sizes as small men—or at worst, that some of the men’s sizes would have to be scaled down proportionately to fit women,” wrote NASA design engineer Elizabeth Benson in a 2009 paper. It’s hard not to react with astonishment to NASA’s oversight on the importance of an adequately fitting female spacesuit, and to feel a grave disappointment towards the lost opportunity of making such a memorable female-only spacewalk because of an ongoing failure to truly cater to all genders equally.

“It’s likely to be a woman, the first next person on the moon. It’s also true that the first person on Mars is likely to be a woman. So these are great days,” said NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine. Let’s hope that Bridenstine’s prediction will indeed become a reality. But first, the agency certainly needs to produce suits that can fit more than just the men they were initially designed for.

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