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NASA’s all-female spacewalk was canceled because there weren't enough spacesuits that fit

By Elizabeth Rayne
NASA astronaut Anne McClain on a spacewalk

NASA was sure it had everything figured out for the first all-female spacewalk that was scheduled to happen later this week…until it wasn’t.

You can’t have a spacewalk without spacesuits that actually fit. That was the point the space agency missed when astronauts Anne McClain and Christina Koch planned to give Women’s History Month the sendoff it deserves by spacewalking together outside the International Space Station on Friday. Koch will now be performing the spacewalk with fellow astronaut Nick Hague, because when you only have one suit that fits, it becomes kind of problematic.

While the issue sparked a firestorm of tweets putting NASA on blast for sexism, it isn’t so blatant. A spacesuit is like a personal spacecraft, and having it configured precisely to an astronaut’s body is crucial for staying alive in space. Koch and McClain both wear a medium. McClain had trained both medium and large torso parts back on Earth, but realized the medium was her ideal fit during her previous spacewalk.

There are two mediums on board — but only one is in what a NASA spokeswoman told The Washington Post is a “readily usable configuration.”

“Koch will wear it,” Schierholz said. “It is more efficient to swap spacewalkers than to reconfigure the elements of the spacesuit.”

Spacesuit sizing isn’t so simple as picking out a shirt. Astronauts usually train in different sizes on the ground, because things can happen to the human body in microgravity (like McClain growing two inches because the discs of fluid between human vertebrae can expand without gravity to hold them back). Wearing a suit that fits as close to your body as possible allows for more control over movements and proper interfacing with the suit’s controls, which could mean life or death if a malfunction occurs out of nowhere.

Some argue NASA could have done better. The other medium spacesuit was technically wearable, but risked a leak or some other kind of glitch that could prove fatal in the freezing and oxygen-deprived vacuum of space. More spacesuits in smaller sizes could have still given McClain and Koch the chance to make history in a few days. Unfortunately, when NASA had to discontinue small and XL suits because of budget cuts, only the XLs were brought back because the Ls just weren’t doing it for male astronauts.

To be clear, it isn't like NASA had some sort of hidden agenda. Since the space agency’s inception in 1958, male astronauts have been the default for spacesuit sizing, even though astronaut training and outfitting is no longer exclusively geared toward men. NASA and international space agencies have been evolving towards women’s inclusivity. This is more about undoing decades-old biases than calling out a purposely sexist move.

Hauge and Koch will be picking up where he and McClain had left off installing lithium-ion batteries on the space station’s solar panels last Friday. Still, as Schierholz insisted, “We believe an all-female spacewalk is inevitable.”

(via The Washington Post)