NASA astronauts Christina Koch and Anne McClain were slated, with much fanfare, to make history last Friday: They were supposed to conduct the first all-female spacewalk to install new batteries on the International Space Station’s solar panels. But five days before the event, NASA broke the news that McClain wouldn’t walk after all; fellow astronaut Nick Hague would swap in.
Disappointment turned to anger over the reason for the swap: The ISS didn’t have enough of the correctly sized spacesuits. According to a statement released by NASA: “McClain learned during her first spacewalk [on March 22] that a medium-size hard upper torso — essentially the shirt of the spacesuit — fits her best. Because only one medium-size torso can be made ready by Friday, March 29, Koch will wear it.”
Initially, it seemed NASA was unprepared for two women, both of whom wear mediums, to spacewalk together. But NASA spokeswoman Stephanie Schierholz clarified, “We have another medium size spacesuit segment on the station; Anne trained in M and L and thought she could use a large but decided after Friday's spacewalk a medium fits better. In this case, it’s easier (and faster!) to change spacewalkers than reconfigure the spacesuit.”
On Monday, Anne McClain said it was her recommendation that Koch and Hague conduct the March 29 spacewalk.
A spacewalk occurs any time an astronaut gets out of a vehicle while in space, and Friday’s would have represented a milestone in closing the gender gap among astronauts. In the past 20 years, over 200 all-male spacewalks have been conducted. The first person to go on a spacewalk was Alexei Leonov in 1965; that came nearly 20 years before Sally Ride became the first American woman in space in 1983. A year later, Svetlana Savitskaya became the first woman to perform a spacewalk.
Jessie Christiansen, deputy science lead at the NASA Exoplanet Archive, was actually surprised that this spacewalk was supposed to be the first with all women: “If you had asked me a few weeks ago, I would have assumed it had already happened,” she said.
NASA plans spacewalks years ahead of time. Given that six spacewalks are scheduled for 2019, during the tenure of both McClain and Koch, it’s perhaps surprising that the spacesuit modifications weren’t taken into account.
But situating this event in context makes clear that in a field historically dominated by men, there are myriad ways for biases to manifest. In this case, that started with the suits themselves.
Spacesuits are astronauts’ life-support systems outside of space vehicles, acting as their “personal spacecrafts.” According to a 2017 report, NASA initially constructed 18 of the iconic, marshmallowy suits, but only four are currently aboard the ISS. Notably, none of those is a small. Two of them are mediums, but only one has been “configured.” Despite spending $200 million on new prototypes, the current suits will be used throughout the lifetime of the ISS. The limited number of functional suits on hand remains an issue: “Officials acknowledged that additional spacesuit attrition could impact the Program,” the 2017 report reads.
And in this case, it did.
It was intended specifically for the male body: Spacesuit sizing traditionally hasn’t taken into account that male and female bodies are proportioned differently, particularly in the hips and shoulders.
According to a NASA report, “Issues have arisen in the past when military organizations have attempted to accommodate women using systems that have been designed for men. Some groups initially assumed that women could fit in the same sizes as small men — or at worst, that some of the men’s sizes would have to be scaled down proportionately to fit women.”
The first astronauts were military jet pilots with engineering backgrounds. Since women weren’t allowed to be jet pilots, gender diversity was a nonstarter. NASA’s current requirements include a bachelor’s degree in a hard science, three years of post-degree experience or 1,000 hours of jet flight time, and passage of a physical, including an eye exam. Roughly 13 percent of American engineers are women; roughly 4 percent of pilots in the United States and Britain are women.
Back in the 1960s, the Woman in Space program, comprised of aspiring female astronauts known as the “Mercury 13,” attempted to break the gender barrier. The candidates passed all of NASA’s tests with flying colors, but NASA canceled the program two years later. NASA administrators and astronauts, including John Glenn, testified:
By the 1980s, Ride and Savitskaya were able to break through. Susan Helms, too, became the first woman on an ISS expedition crew in 2001. Fast forward to 2019, to what was almost the first all-female spacewalk. How much longer will it take?
Ariel Waldman, co-author of the National Academy of Sciences report on the future of human spaceflight and a NASA adviser, is more frustrated by the tokenism of women in space — the, “Hey, at least there’s a woman on the crew” sentiment. According to Waldman, this is what a history-making spacewalk really highlights:
Waldman maintains that “the people in space are supposed to be representative of the people on Earth.” She says it’s frustrating that this isn’t the case — and not only with regards to gender. Diversity across the board, she says, is lacking.
According to a 2014 report, nearly 80 percent of NASA astronauts are white; 13.4 percent are African American, 2.5 percent are Asian, and 3.4 percent are Hispanic. For Native Americans, that number is 1.6 percent.
And what about LGBTQ or non-binary astronauts? Ride, the first woman in space, came out as lesbian in her obituary in 2012; she was the first and only openly gay astronaut.
Or astronauts with disabilities, who are currently precluded due to the physical exams? A Wired article makes the case for why deaf, blind and physically disabled astronauts would have advantages in space travel. The National Space Society similarly argues that people with disabilities are particularly well-equipped to cope with difficulties and to find creative solutions.
These conversations are important — but for now, the failed all-female spacewalk reminds people that we’re still only in the talking phase.
Christiansen notes that the potential milestone itself had been bittersweet. While she was excited for the notion of the first all-women spacewalk — of “breaking through another barrier” — there was nevertheless “frustration that these barriers still exist.”
A few weeks ago, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said the next person on the moon is “likely to be a woman.” He went on to say that the first person on Mars will probably be a woman as well.