Why NASA Canceled the First All-Female Space Walk

Can the space suits of tomorrow overcome the gender disparities of today?
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NASA astronaut Anne McClain reacts as her space suit is tested prior to the launch onboard the Soyuz MS-11 spacecraft at the Russian-leased Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on December 3rd, 2018.

NASA astronaut Anne McClain reacts as her space suit is tested prior to the launch onboard the Soyuz MS-11 spacecraft at the Russian-leased Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on December 3rd, 2018.

Two women were scheduled to make history 240 miles above Earth this week, until a space suit sunk the plan. On Monday, NASA announced that astronauts Anne McClain and Christina Koch would not be making the first-ever all-female space walk together, "due in part to space suit availability" on the International Space Station, NASA representatives said in a statement. Astronaut Nick Hague is now scheduled to take McClain's place on March 29th. (McClain completed her space walk last week.)

The decision prompted backlash online, but NASA spokesperson Stephanie Schierholz maintains that the change is not about gender. "When you have the option of just switching the people, the mission becomes more important than a cool milestone," she said in an interview with the New York Times.

The agency has since said the station has more than one medium-sized suit on board, but that reconfiguring the suit would take too much time. The backpack-like apparatus acts like "a small spacecraft," allowing astronauts to breathe and withstand the low atmospheric pressure, as NASA says on an explanatory webpage. It takes a "busy four weeks" to prepare for a walk, which includes maintenance to the suit's cooling system, according to a video McClain tweeted last week. So when McClain noticed that the upper torso of her suit was not fitting correctly, she couldn't just slip on another.

NASA has come a long way since Sally Ride became the first American woman in space: In a first for the agency, women made up half the graduates in the 2013 astronaut class, which included both McClain and Koch. According to NASA's website, about 30 percent of active astronauts are women. Now, people are wondering how NASA plans to outfit them.

NASA Has Long Had Problems Providing Smaller Suits for Women

Even before the uproar, NASA faced criticism over its space suits, which only allow for three sizes and require a lot of careful adjustment. "A proper space suit fit is particularly challenging because of NASA's desire to fit an incredibly diverse population (males and females from the 1 to 99 percentile) while developing a minimum number of space suit sizes," wrote Elizabeth Benson at MEI Technologies, Inc. and Sudhakar Rajulu, technical manager with the NASA Johnson Space Center, in 2009.

This means that designers have had to weigh the cost of fitting a suit to one person's proportions with future projects. They argue, why spend millions of dollars to outfit only a few astronauts?

But it wasn't always this way. As NPR reported in 2006, NASA eliminated its small, extra-small, and extra-large sizes in the 1990s as a cost-cutting measure. Although the agency eventually developed a new extra-large suit, it never finished the small one—a failure that some believe could have ended many female astronauts' careers before they took off. According to NPR, the suits did not fit about one-third of the women who were active when the agency last looked into the issue. (NASA did not respond to a request for comment on updated figures.)

In 2002, Andrew Lawler reported in Science that NASA risked skewing future biomedical data male by halting its $16 million program to design a suit for smaller women. At the time, the three available sizes fit around 90 percent of men, but only 60 percent of women. It wasn't just that fewer people needed the smaller suit; the sizing itself was weeding some women out: Lawler reported that "the current suit puts some women at a disadvantage in qualifying tests," meaning that they would be less likely to secure a space on board a flight—let alone a space walk.

Where Did All the Small Space Suits Go?

Now, NASA might have an even bigger problem: According to an April of 2017 audit from the NASA Office of Inspector General, the agency is low on suits of all sizes. Only 11 of the original 18 units remained in 2017. The audit concluded that NASA would not have enough suits to last through 2024, the year planned for the International Space Station's retirement.

To explain the scarcity, NASA's defenders point to decreased investment in space suits and proposals to defund the space station. Since each mission requires different space-suit designs, recent planning failures have hindered development—with serious consequences for gender representation. The Office of Inspector General also found that, despite spending nearly $200 million on development, insufficient torso sizes have resulted in "exclusion of astronauts who are too large or too small," as well as shoulder injuries:

The Hard Upper Torso was designed in the Shuttle era to accommodate a specific range of individuals and fabricated in three sizes: medium, large, and extra-large. However, over the years the astronaut corps has become more diverse and includes individuals that do not conform to the historical norm. As a result, astronauts who do not fit comfortably into available suit sizes can have increased accessibility issues. For example, temperature is controlled through a rotary dial on the front of the EMU, which means smaller astronauts face visual and mechanical disadvantages that limit their ability to properly control suit temperature.

New Suits Won't Fix Everything

NASA found itself on the defensive this week, issuing statements to make clear that the switch was "safer and faster." But it's true that women in the astronaut corps have historically faced institutionalized sexism. The dwindling supply of suits in NASA's closet is representative of a few skeletons as well: According to author Karen Gibson, after the Soviet Union put the first woman in space in 1963, one NASA official said the idea of "an American space woman makes me sick to my stomach." It wasn't until 1983 that NASA sent a women into space—and, even then, they've been underrepresented in space walks on the space station.

Even this space walk, billed by some as a momentous event, was unplanned. NASA representatives have said that scheduling all-female astronauts and lead Mission Control staff was a happy accident—"the luck of the draw," as Schierholz told Space.com.

With more women on the astronaut corps, perhaps the odds of such a draw will improve. As the New York Times reports, 12 of the 38 active astronauts listed on NASA's website are women. "We're sort of getting to the point of inevitability" of an all-female space walk, Schierholz has said.

In the meantime, maybe the privatized "space suits of tomorrow" will move beyond the gender disparities of today.

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