The Mis-Fit Nature of Women in Space
Friday, March 29th, was scheduled to be a historic day for NASA – for the first time in history a spacewalk on the International Space Station (ISS) was set to be supported by all women, both astronauts and the ground crew. Just a few days before the highly anticipated spacewalk was set to take place, NASA announced that astronaut Anne McClain – a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Arm and NASA engineer and astronaut – would no longer be participating in the spacewalk due to a lack of a spacesuit available in her size.
The internet was quick to jump on the story as the world watched eagerly, in anticipation of a groundbreaking moment in space. How could have NASA not prepared for this? Why don’t they have enough space suits that fit women?
So what happened? NASA is an organization that is known for planning and training their astronauts for every contingency. Well it turns out spacesuits are notoriously difficult to fit here on Earth. We know from years of research that the human body changes when exposed to microgravity. Without the pull of gravity, fluids in your body shift upward, which is why astronauts often look like they have puffy faces and skinny legs when they are aboard the ISS. The spine also lengthens. But how much these changes will affect an individual is hard to predict. Astronaut McClain has already grown 2” in her time aboard the ISS. On the ground, McClain trained on the medium and large spacesuit torsos, essentially the shirts of the space suits, but when it came to her first spacewalk on March 22nd, leading up to the historic all women’s space walk on March 29th,, she found that the medium fit better and concluded that it would be unsafe to go out in the large torso.
Unfortunately, the medium torso was also the best fit for astronaut Christina Koch, who was scheduled to be the second astronaut on the spacewalk on March 29th. There is a second medium torso aboard the ISS, but it wasn’t ready to be exposed to the vacuum of space and be used on a spacewalk. Preparing the suit would have taken several hours, time that astronauts just didn’t have. Astronauts are tightly scheduled, almost every day, performing critical maintenance on the ISS, conducting science experiments, and more. Instead of delaying these tasks, which could potentially become a safety risk to the space station’s operations, it was easier to swap out Ann McCain with a fellow male astronaut, Nick Haugue, who knew that he could safely use the large torso space suit.
Last minute changes to projects conducted in space are not uncommon. However, given the historic possibility of NASA’s first all-women spacewalk, this mission exemplifies not only the delicate nature of space operations, and organizational readiness, but also how women in science continue to face challenges, as simple as “not fitting”. Ultimately, the issue for NASA isn’t having enough space suits to fit women, it’s not having enough spacesuits period. The spacesuits that astronauts use for spacewalks were designed in the 1970’s and made in the 1980’s for the Space Shuttle Program. Eleven of the eighteen original spacesuits still exist having been in service for almost 40 years (originally, they were only designed to last 15 years). Four spacesuits remain aboard the ISS and the rest are in various states of refurbishment and testing, here on Earth,. These suits are switched out every 6 years, or every 25 spacewalks, whichever comes first. A 2017 audit found that enough of these spacesuits might not last through 2024, when the U.S. plans to defund the ISS.
NASA’s latest efforts for designing spacesuits is now focused on going to the Moon and Mars. Each of these locations has a unique set of requirements, and are different from what is needed aboard the ISS.
While we are all sad that history wasn’t made with March 29th’s all-women spacewalk, NASA is closer than ever to making this a reality in the near future. The 2013 astronaut class, which Anne McClain and Christina Koch were both members of, had an equal number of men and women and the 2017 class added five new female astronaut candidates to the core. In the meantime, let’s congratulate astronauts Anne McClain and Christina Koch on being the 13th and 14th women to complete a spacewalk respectively.