This week, NASA is doing damage control, in addition to ground control, for the all-female space walk that never was. As Pacific Standard has reported, the problem wasn't only a lack of suits, although NASA has struggled with that too. Designers never set out to accommodate people who did "not conform to the historical norm," according to NASA's Office of the Inspector General (meaning, men).
Still, NASA emphasized that the reassignment had nothing to do with gender. "This decision was based on my recommendation," astronaut Anne McClain, who was previously scheduled to perform a space walk with Christina Koch on Friday, said in a statement on Twitter. "Safety of the crew and execution of the mission come first."
After I wrote about NASA's difficulties providing smaller suits for women in Pacific Standard this week, representatives for the agency responded to a request for comment. Here's more information from lead spokesperson Stephanie Schierholz on NASA's goals for its next round of space suits (more to come in the mid-2020s).
In 2002, NASA halted work on a $16 million program to develop a space suit designed for smaller women. Do you have any updates on this?
The space suit (this suit system is called the Extra Vehicular Mobility Unity) was designed in the 1970s for use beginning in the early 1980s during the space shuttle program. We're using these space suits at the space station, but not producing [them] any more. Instead we are focusing our resources on building the next generation of space suits, and one of the things we're looking at is how to design them to accommodate the largest possible range of sizes.
What percentage of male and female astronauts can fit in the current size range (medium, large, and extra-large)?
The suits are unisex, the same for men and women, and sized in a variety of ways to fit individual astronauts. Many different space suit elements that come in a variety of sizes are combined to make a space suit in a variety of fits. Suit sizing engineers collect over 80 different body measurements from an astronaut that are then plugged into an equation to determine a start size for each modular component of the space suit (upper torso, waist, elbows, gloves, knees, boots, cooling garment, and undergarments). The element that came into play here is the hard upper torso, essentially the shirt of the space suit.
All of our astronauts train for space walks wearing these space suits on a regular basis, so they are all able to fit in the existing sizes.
NASA has said it had one other medium-sized torso component at the station, but chose not to reconfigure it for McClain's suit in the interest of time and safety. What goes into configuring a suit?
We have two medium hard upper torsos in space, two larges, and two extra larges; however, one of the mediums and one of the extra larges are spares that would require additional time for configuration. Configuring the spare medium for a space walk would take about 12 hours of crew time in space and incurs additional risks, since it exposes the hard upper torso's interfaces with the life support system. The space suit is a mini spaceship that keeps our astronauts alive while they're space-walking.
Based on her experience in the first space walk in the series, McClain determined that, although she trained in both medium and large torsos on Earth, the medium, which she wore last Friday during the space walk, was a better fit for her in space. To provide each astronaut the best fitting space suit during their space walks, Koch will wear the medium torso on March 29th, and McClain will wear it again on April 8th.
Are there any new plans to make suits that fit people too small or too large for the current sizes?
NASA has been continually investing in space suit technology development over the past decade and has made significant progress on components for a new exploration space suit, a version of which is currently planned for a demonstration on [the International Space Station] in the mid-2020s. Better accommodating the smaller end of the sizing range (both male and female) has been a key goal.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.