Today, NASA announced they cancelled their all-female spacewalk because it doesn’t have enough spacesuits that fit women.
Yes, you read that right.
There was great excitement earlier this month, NASA announced that the first ever all-female spacewalk would be taking place at the International Space Station (ISS) on 29 March. Astronauts Christina Koch and Anne McClain were scheduled to head into space on a mission to replace vital batteries at the ISS, with support on the ground from flight team Mary Lawrence and Kristen Facciol.
— Anne McClain (@AstroAnnimal) March 25, 2019
This was hugely significant news because although there have been over 200 spacewalks at the ISS since 1998, none have been led by women. And generally, the teams involved on the walks that did happen have either been all-male or featured only a small number of women. In fact, the number is embarrassingly low; in 60 years of space flight, there have only been four missions that included two female members trained for spacewalks.
So, what happened?
NASA was forced to cancel what would have been the first all-female spacewalk because only one of the two spacesuits available was appropriately sized.
Anne McClain, one-half of the female duo that was set to launch this Friday, had to give her spot to a male counterpart. McClain, who was supposed to travel with Christina Koch, attempted to walk and manoeuvre in the large-size suit during testing last week, but in the end, it was determined she’d best be able to accomplish her mission in a medium-size suit.
Spacewalks are a challenge, but the right equipment makes the job easier! Spacesuits are the most important gear. To get the best fit, we’ve updated the assignments for our March 29 and April 8 spacewalks outside the @Space_Station. Get more details: https://www.nasa.gov/press-release/nasa-updates-spacewalk-assignments-announces-final-preview-briefing/?utm_source=TWITTER&utm_medium=NASA&utm_campaign=NASASocial&linkId=65267297 pic.twitter.com/xrCKdMgFXr
— NASA (@NASA) March 25, 2019
Stephanie Schierholz, a spokeswoman for NASA, said in her announcement, “Anne trained in ‘M’ and ‘L’ and thought she could use a large but decided after [last] Friday’s spacewalk a medium fits better.”
Fellow women quickly expressed their disdain on social media at how an organisation famed for their use of math and exact science could have made such an obvious blunder.
Hillary Clinton, who sent out a tweet this morning in response to the news, summed up the entire situation.
Make another suit. https://twitter.com/guardian/status/1110349516660711431
— Hillary Clinton (@HillaryClinton) March 26, 2019
However, even though they did get another suit in the appropriate size, there was no time to go through the procedure again, so the plans had to be changed. In defence, Schierholz said, “In this case, it’s easier (and faster!) to change space-walkers than reconfigure the suit.”
Yes, safety matters. And yes, we want both women to go out comfortable and safe. But was it too much to ask that such a renowned entity could get a thing like a space suit correctly sized?
McClain now is tentatively scheduled to perform her next spacewalk on Monday, April 8, but there’s no word on when – or if – Christina Koch will join her in the future.
Main photograph: @NASA