It was almost one giant leap for womankind, but history-in-the-making was averted as NASA cancelled the first all-female spacewalk scheduled for Friday, March 29, due to a lack of spacesuits in sizes that fit the women astronauts on-board the International Space Station (ISS).
NASA had to swap one of the women’s spots for a male astronaut, because there weren’t enough space suits available to fit both women. Astronauts Anne McClain and Christina Koch were supposed to take the trip together, but McClain who needs a smaller suit has pulled out and was replaced by astronaut Nick Hague.
To be clear, Koch and McClain will eventually both walk in space—just not together.
The two @NASA_Astronauts who will venture outside of the @Space_Station for Friday’s spacewalk are Nick Hague (@AstroHague) & Christina Koch (@Astro_Christina). Find out more details about updated spacewalk assignments: https://t.co/SA57MnE5dY pic.twitter.com/ApEs4YfpHJ— NASA (@NASA) March 25, 2019
This has fuelled outrage across the world as women claimed that the ready availability of a suit for the male replacement pointed to systemic sexism, incompetence, and prolonged discrimination against female astronauts in the premier institution.
Details of the spacewalk
NASA, however, has proffered a carefully crafted, scientific reply to defend their “right decision.” But, before we get to the specifics of what goes into making a spacesuit and why it’s still difficult to put two women in space together, let’s take a look at the original roster for the historic spacewalk first.
Before the swap, Friday’s spacewalk was set to be led by women, both in space and on the ground. This would have been a landmark event, with Kristen Facciol of the Canadian Space Agency on the console for the excursion, while Mary Lawrence and Jackie Kagey served as lead flight controller and lead spacewalk flight controller, respectively.
The astronauts, Koch and McClain were supposed to perform the spacewalk on Friday to replace a set of nickel-hydrogen batteries with lithium-ion ones, outside the ISS, that store solar power for use when the station is in the Earth’s shadow.
The decision to switch McClain out was taken after her first extravehicular activity (EVA) outside the ISS last Friday, March 22.
What happened at the first EVA?
“Mission managers decided to adjust the assignments, due, in part, to spacesuit availability on the station,” the space agency said in a press release.
“McClain learned during her first spacewalk 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.”
Notwithstanding the space agency’s longstanding problem with its spacesuit inventory and future procurement plans, the move has sparked huge controversy, with Hillary Clinton tweeting memorably, “Make another suit.”
But NASA officials claim that it is easier said than done.
Preparing a spacesuit for exposure to the vacuum of space is no easy task. Last week McClain posted a video of her doing a “loop scrub” on a suit, necessary to keep the cooling system running properly.
Astronauts also conduct several fit checks as they prepare for spacewalks, according to Space.com, as they change in shape and size in microgravity. In fact, McClain said on Twitter earlier this month that she had already grown 2 inches in the few months she’s been on the ISS.
Safety first. But what’s up with NASA’s inventory?
Spacesuits sometimes fit differently in microgravity than in ground tests, and McClain was concerned about up-sizing (from medium) to a large suit for Friday’s EVA according to official sources.
The torso is a fibre-glass shell, and it can be difficult to manoeuvre the suit and reach control dials on the front if it is not optimally snug, reported Ars Technica.
NASA spokesperson Stephanie Schierholz told NBC News that while two of the four total suits are medium-sized, only one is configured for a spacewalk. It would take about 12 hours to make the second ready, according to reports.
Since Koch already uses one of the medium-sized suits, the mission managers decided the safest decision was to have Koch proceed in the medium suit and Hague participate in a larger suit on Friday.
The questions of safety and expediency are always top priorities for NASA’s engineers. In case of spacewalks, which are physically demanding and potentially dangerous, spacesuit problems can prove to be fatal. Yet, they do occur. There has been about one suit issue for every 10 EVAs that NASA has performed, owing to micrometeoroid impact. This makes NASA’s call to switch McClain the right one.
But, one cannot simply overlook the 2017 report by the agency’s inspector general which notes that NASA’s current stock of 11 spacesuits were designed in 1974 and first used in 1981. Those suits are rotated up to the station, and down, and serviced on the ground. The report severely criticises the dirth of efforts to develop a “next generation” of spacesuits needed for future exploration missions.
An NPR report in 2006 charted how opportunities for women may have been hampered by the fact that spacesuits only came in medium, large and extra-large sizes. The small size was discontinued in the 1990s after NASA had to redesign the suits because of a technical glitch. After that, it was found that a third of its female astronauts couldn’t fit into existing suits.
Why it matters
Speaking of NASA’s diversity problem, the systemic exclusion has certainly gone down since the days of the Apollo Mission and other space shuttle missions. However, logistics and cost-effective operations are still rooted in those social mores.
A post shared by velvey (@velvetcoke) on Mar 10, 2019 at 10:44am PDT
NASA has taken significant steps since then, flying 45 women into space, including Peggy Whitson, who has spent the most time in space. Nine of the 20 astronaut candidates in the last two astronaut classes (2013 and 2017) were women, and 12 of the agency’s 38 active astronauts are women.
The first woman to ever perform a spacewalk was cosmonaut Svetlana Savitskaya, who worked outside the Soviet space station Salyut 7 in 1984. Only 12 additional women have spacewalked since, of the 214 spacewalks that have been conducted at the ISS; Koch will become the 14th female spacewalker on Friday.
This makes an all-female spacewalk long overdue, and the fact that it is still newsworthy underscores what the cancelled spacewalk would have meant symbolically.
But as some have pointed out, safety comes first and it’s vital that McClain is able to perform the mission in the right equipment. What would have been ideal is if more suits were readily available to fit female astronauts in the first place.
For now, however, NASA has no current plans for an all-female spacewalk. Schierholz told the Times she thinks it’s only a matter of time, saying, “We’re sort of getting to the point of inevitability.” As for McClain, she is now “tentatively scheduled” to perform her next space walk on April 8 to lay out jumper cables, alongside a male colleague.
Meanwhile, in India
India, meanwhile, is gearing for its own human spaceflight mission set to take flight in late 2021. ISRO reported in January that it will encourage women astronauts to steer its (wo)manned Gaganyaan missions.
Agency chief K Sivan was in consonance with Prime minister Narendra Modi who declared last year, “We have resolved that by 2022, when India celebrates 75 years of independence, or maybe even before that, certainly some of our young boys and girls will unfurl the tricolour in space.” “We want women astronauts to be there,” said Sivan.
Prarthana Mitra is Staff Writer at Qrius.