As you may have heard, NASA were set to have the first all-female spacewalk this coming Friday, March 29th. However, yesterday NASA made the announcement that they re-assigned the astronauts for the walk, leading to an onslaught of speculation and accusations.
Contrary to what many headlines or comments would have you believe, this is *not* the patriarchy standing in the way of women’s history.
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But that doesn’t stop them from trying to stir up drama where there is none:
Nasa cancels all-female spacewalk, citing lack of suit in woman's size https://t.co/gv6qZl1oDp
— The Guardian (@guardian) March 26, 2019
This headline from The Guardian is problematic because whether they’re aware of it or not, they’re suggesting to many readers that NASA just doesn’t care enough to send up an extra “woman’s” spacesuit. The fact is that there are no differences in spacesuits for a woman or a man. It’s the same equipment. They’re not even labeled “male” or “female.”
Here’s another problematic headline, this time from the Washington Post:
Haha! Get it? It’s funny to joke about because they’re women, and women like clothes, right? So it’s funny to joke about female scientists in space not having the right clothes, because girls will be girls!
I wonder if they brought enough makeup for their 6-month stay? Tee hee!
Writing for Science Alert, Signe Dean pointed out that this has less to do with NASA not providing its female astronauts with the proper equipment, rather than one of the astronauts re-sizing herself mid-mission.
Despite wide media coverage, the scheduling of these crew members – including the fact that women would be at key flight controls down on Earth as well – was a happy coincidence, not a pre-meditated event (the maintenance jobs weren’t even planned until later in the year).
“It was not orchestrated to be this way,” NASA spokeswoman Stephanie Schierholz said when the news first broke.
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And as anyone who pays attention to space news knows, plans can change. And in this case, it’s not for reasons rooted in sexism, rather it’s for something practical. Astronaut Anne McClain complained of her suit being too large during her last spacewalk, and NASA decided she needed a medium-sized suit.
The ‘cancellation’ of the all-female spacewalk has come down to the fact that during that March 22 foray McClain discovered her best spacesuit torso fit is a medium, not large as the team previously thought.
NASA’s extravehicular activity (EVA) suits are actually considered to be “personal spacecraft” designed to keep a human alive in the harsh environment of space. They don’t have male and female versions, but consist of a mix-and-match collection of parts – torso, arms, gloves etc. – that come in several sizes, to ensure proper fit for each astronaut.
It takes a lot of time to prepare a spacesuit for an EVA. As Dean goes on to point out, while it takes just fifteen minutes to get into the suit, there are countless system checks done on the suits leading up to any EVA. You want to make sure that everything is in proper working order before you go outside the International Space Station. You want to be sure that you’re protected and everything is working when the 250° Fahrenheit (121° C) sunlight hits you, or when you go into a shadow and it’s suddenly -250° F (-157° C).
NASA Astronauts Astronauts Anne McClain (left) and Christina Koch (right), via NASA. The pair of women were set to make history at the end of Women’s History Month with the first all-female spacewalk.
And after all, astronauts have almost drowned in space during EVAs. So it’s probably a good thing that they check their double checks on things.
They have two Medium-sized suits on station right now, but only prepared one Medium and one Large suit for the EVA because that’s what they thought they would need. NASA decided to change personnel for the EVA because the time it would take to conduct the EVA is less than the time it would have taken to reconfigure the other Medium-sized suit.
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.
— Stephanie (@schierholz) March 25, 2019
In the Science Alert piece, Dean goes on to explain that a shortage of “female” spacesuits isn’t a female issue – they barely have enough suits in the first place.
In 2017, the agency released an audit of the suits currently used on the ISS, outlining concerns about the age of the equipment which might not even last until the station’s planned retirement in 2024.
“Of the 11 remaining complete and functional spacesuits, 4 are kept on the ISS and the remaining 7 are on Earth in various stages of refurbishment and maintenance,”the audit stated. Yikes.
New suits are in the works, but these things involve extraordinary costs and time to produce, with funding cuts eating into the development of replacements, the Z-Series Pressure Garment System.
So yeah, this is not the social justice battle you were hoping for, and news outlets need to not stoke this fire like they have been. The only real outrage you should have here is that NASA is not adequately funded (and they’re wasting their funding on a failed spaceship that was primarily designed to keep contracts active).
— Michael Sheetz (@thesheetztweetz) March 22, 2019
As one of my favorite YouTubers pointed out, this is about the mission, not the PR:
It's really unfortunate that NASA needs to change the plans for Fridays EVA, Anne McClain realized during the prior EVA she needed a smaller suit configuration, while they can rebuild the suits on orbit it takes time which wasn't planned.
It's an EVA, not a publicity stunt.
— Scott Manley (@DJSnM) March 26, 2019
Astronauts train extensively on Earth before going to the ISS, including for EVAs they may or may not do. They get fitted for suits on Earth, but it can be tricky since the suits themselves inflate like a balloon. The neckline on the suits are chest-level while deflated, however go to the right spot when inflated. It’s possible that they thought she would “grow” more while in orbit, too. Astronauts can “grow” up to 3% of their terrestrial height while in space (their spines elongate in microgravity), meaning a 6 foot tall person would grow as much as 2 inches while on station.
It would have been great to end Women’s History Month with the first-ever all female spacewalk. But this is a logistical issue. Astronauts on the ISS are BUSY. They have to keep the station clean (sanitizing surfaces so microbes don’t grow uncontrollably), sample the surfaces to see what types of microbes are growing, unload cargo, replace cargo from the capsules with their trash (they can’t just dump things outside – that would create many new projectiles), and do important scientific research.
Oh, and they get some free time for their own mental health, and they have to sleep at some point.
So it’s a practical move. There will undoubtedly be another opportunity for an all-female spacewalk. I have no doubt that inclusivity is a focus for NASA. I’ve been able to interact with NASA staff behind-the-scenes and off the record many times now, and I’ve always had the impression that equal representation and equality in general was important to them.
So relax. It’s just a matter of having a lot of things to get done, and not having enough time. That’s it.