Astronauts Christina Koch and Anne McClain were due to make history by leading the first all-female spacewalk – but now, they won’t be going into space together.
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.
It was exciting news, not least because of the generally low levels of gender diversity in space teams. There have been over 200 spacewalks at the ISS since 1998, but none have been led by women – and the teams involved in making them happen have generally either been all-male or featured only a small number of women. In 60 years of space flight, there have only been four missions that included two female members trained for spacewalks.
But after getting the world excited at the prospect of an all-female spacewalk, NASA has now been forced to change its plans. While the mission will still take place on 29 March, it will no longer feature a women-only team – thanks to a lack of spacesuits designed to fit female torsos.
In a statement, NASA said it had been forced to revise its plans for the spacewalk “in part due to spacesuit availability on the station”. McClain took part in a spacewalk last Friday with fellow astronaut Nick Hague, the agency said, where she realised that a “medium-size upper torso – essentially the shirt of the spacesuit – fits her best”.
Unfortunately – but predictably – Koch wears the same size. And because only one medium spacesuit torso can be made in time for the spacewalk on 29 March, only one of the women can go on the mission to the ISS.
As a result, McClain has been forced to sit out the spacewalk on 29 March. Hague will take her place and go to the ISS with Koch, NASA said, while McClain is “tentatively scheduled” to take part in a spacewalk on 8 April with Canadian astronaut David Saint-Jacques.
It’s not fair to attack NASA for the move, which has undoubtedly been made for the safety and comfort of the astronauts involved. And as Signe Dean at ScienceAlert notes, the US space agency has a surprising dearth of suitable spacesuits for all genders, not just women. In 2017, NASA released an audit of the suits used on the ISS, which showed that there were only 11 “complete and functional spacesuits” in existence, and just seven on Earth – all of which were “in various stages of refurbishment and maintenance”.
NASA was also careful to note that circumstances could change when it first announced its plans for an all-female spacewalk. In the original press release about Koch and McClain’s mission, NASA spokeswoman Stephanie Schierholz said that “spacewalk assignments may be adjusted if the flight operations team deems it necessary”.
But in a world overwhelmingly designed to suit men, it’s not hard to understand why many people feel bitterly disappointed that a lack of women-friendly spacesuits has prevented the first all-female spacewalk from taking place.
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