Astronauts on the International Space Station have completed 214 spacewalks in the past 21 years, but none have been all-women endeavors. So it was very exciting earlier this month when NASA publicized what was supposed to be the first all-female spacewalk in history. But just days before the planned walk, a spacesuit sizing problem means one of the female astronauts will be replaced by a man.
NASA is in the midst of conducting three scheduled spacewalks, the first of which was completed on Friday, March 22, by NASA astronauts Nick Hague and Anne McClain. The second of these walks, scheduled for Friday, March 25, garnered considerable media and public attention when it was announced earlier this month that McClain and NASA astronaut Christina Koch would collaborate on a spacewalk to swap out a battery pack on the station’s power supply—what would’ve been the first all-women spacewalk in history.
Alas, it was not meant to be, as NASA explained in a press release issued late yesterday:
However, after consulting with McClain and Hague following the first spacewalk, mission managers decided to adjust the assignments, due in part to spacesuit availability on the station. 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.
After all the excitement for a first all-female spacewalk, to see it cancelled because there’s insufficient equipment for the female crew is a huge disappointment.
To date, there have been 214 spacewalks outside the ISS, all of which have either featured all-male teams or tandems involving a man and a woman. The super-overdue all-women spacewalk was greeted with hearty enthusiasm, but the sudden cancelation quickly turned the story sour. And the cited reason—spacesuits that don’t fit the women—added ironic salt to the wound.
It wasn’t until the March 22 spacewalk that McClain realized that the medium-size spacesuit with the hard upper torso suits her best. She wore the large-sized upper torso during the spacewalk, only to find she wasn’t comfortable. This was an unexpected turn of events, and not something NASA had planned for. The sizing of spacesuits happens on the ground—but things can change in space. As NASA spaceflight director Mary Lawrence noted at a press conference last week, and as relayed by SpaceNews, “When they launch on board, we know pretty well what suit size they are but, of course, your body changes slightly in space due to fluid shifts or spine elongation.”
The ISS is currently equipped with a second medium-sized torso, but it’s not configured and won’t be ready for the March 29 spacewalk. Spacesuits on the ISS are unisex, explained NASA spokesperson Stephanie Schierholz in an email to Gizmodo, and they’re sized in different ways to fit each astronaut. The elements that comprise a completed spacesuit come in a variety of sizes, which are mixed and matched to customize a spacesuit to a specific individual, she said.
“The element that came into play here is the hard upper torso,” said Schierholz. “On board the space station we have two medium torsos, two large, and two extra large. However, one of the mediums and one of the extra larges are spares that would require additional time to be configured for a spacewalk. Configuring the spare medium for a spacewalk would take about 12 hours of crew time in space and incurs additional risks, since it exposes the hard upper torso’s interfaces with the life support system.”
Instead of doing this, and to avoid unnecessary delays, it made more sense for NASA to simply reschedule the assigned missions. On that note, Hague will join Koch for the March 29 spacewalk, while McClain will join Canadian astronaut David Saint-Jacque for the April 8 spacewalk.
Now, with the new assignments, NASA can push ahead with its scheduled spacewalks. The ISS is currently preparing for some busy weeks ahead, including visits by a Russian Progress cargo spacecraft, a Northrop Grumman Cygnus spacecraft, and a SpaceX Dragon cargo capsule.
It will be regrettable if we have to wait much longer for an all-female spacewalk. As Schierholz told Gizmodo, “We do believe an all-female spacewalk is inevitable; it just won’t be this Friday.”
“This is made more likely by the increase in the percentage of women who have become astronauts: 50 percent of the 2013 astronaut candidate class are women (including McClain and Koch), and of the 11 members of 2017 astronaut candidate class—which is still in training—five are women,” she said.
Awesome. But these developments on the ground need to be matched by developments up in space, such as pre-configured equipment to meet the needs of all crewmembers. No more excuses.