Space

NASA Nixes All-Women Spacewalk Because It Doesn't Have Spacesuits That Fit

While some say the shortage reflects how women are still not seen as equals in space exploration, others believe NASA has a more general spacesuit problem.

New Delhi: NASA recently announced that it had to cancel an historic all-women spacewalk, scheduled for Friday, “in part” because it did not have enough spacesuits that would fit women at the International Space Station.

The first-of-its-kind spacewalk was scheduled to mark Women’s History Month.

NASA astronauts Anne McClain and Christina Koch were to make the spacewalk, with the assistance of Kristen Facciol on the ground in Houston, according to Good Morning America. Lead flight director Mary Lawrence and lead spacewalk flight controller Jackie Kagey were also going to be involved.

McClain will be giving her spot to a man. “Anne trained in ‘M’ and ‘L’ and thought she could use a large but decided after [last] Friday’s spacewalk a medium fits better,” Guardian quoted NASA spokesperson Stephanie Schierholz as saying on Monday. “In this case, it’s easier (and faster!) to change space-walkers than reconfigure the spacesuit.”

Koch and McClain both needed medium-sized spacesuits – and NASA only has one. McClain took part in one spacewalk last week, and will reportedly be making her next spacewalk on April 8.

“We do our best to anticipate the spacesuit sizes that each astronaut will need, based on the spacesuit size they wore in training on the ground, and in some cases (including Anne’s) astronauts train in multiple sizes,” NASA spokesperson Brandi Dean told Popular Science. “However, individuals’ sizing needs may change when they are on orbit, in response to the changes living in microgravity can bring about in a body.”

Leaving women out of space?

News that NASA cancelled the spacewalk – and the fact that it has only one spacesuit available for a size more likely to be worn by women – did not go down well with observers. For many, it was proof that women are still not equal partners in the space exploration programme.

Many highlighted why it’s so important to have a spacesuit that fits – and celebrated the fact the McClain was able to object after her trial spacewalk.

In a long Twitter thread, author Mary Robinette Kowal laid out the history of NASA and spacesuits, including why there are more large suits available. She talked about spacesuits need to be refurbished every six years – so it doesn’t necessarily mean that NASA doesn’t have another medium spacesuit, but more that it may not be in usable condition.

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Kowal argued that while McClain was right to object when she though a large spacesuit wouldn’t work for her, the reason NASA had only one medium is a result of more importance being given to equipment suited for men. “NASA used to have small, medium, large and extra-large suits. For budget reasons, the small and XL suits were cut. However, many of the male astronauts could not fit into the L suits, so the XLs were brought back. The small suits never were.”

It’s not just women in space who have to worry about appropriate workplace gear – or the lack thereof. In an interview with CBC, Canadian engineer Tenai Norman talked about why she decided to start a business selling clothing for women in different occupations. “It’s unfortunate that she [McClain] had to step aside, but that’s the reality for us as women,” Norman said.

A gender neutral problem?

However, writing in Ars Technica, Eric Berger argued that there are currently only four spacesuits at the International Space Centre – two medium and two large. One of the medium spacesuits is not fit for use at the moment, and will require 12 hours of work to be ready.

According to Berger, the all-women spacewalk was not a conscious decision. It just so happened that that’s how the schedule turned out. Given that, it wasn’t a big deal for the engineers involved when they had to rejig the schedule because of the safety concerns.

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While it may not be a conspiracy against women astronauts, Berger argues, NASA does have a spacesuit problem. The agency is currently using spacesuits designed in 1974 and first flown in 1981. Eighteen suits were produced then, and 11 are still in use. However, a 2017 report by the NASA inspector general found that it was lagging behind in designing next generation suits. “The agency remains years away from having a flight-ready spacesuit … suitable for use on future exploration missions.”

Pablo de Leon, a professor of space studies at the University of North Dakota and a spacesuit expert, agreed with Berger’s assessment. While the agency had plans to design new suits, he argued, the money never came through.

Whatever the case may be, the fact that NASA first played up an all-women spacewalk and then cancelled because of the lack of equipment doesn’t look great for the agency – or its efforts to have a more gender-just workplace.

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