Lack of spacesuits raises questions
At the beginning of March, NASA had announced the first all-female space walk would take place later that month.
Then, mere days before it was set to go, it was abruptly cancelled.
The reason? They didn’t have enough spacesuits to fit Christina Koch and Anne McClain, the astronauts who would have been performing the historic walk scheduled on March 29.
To be fair, they thought they did. McClain had trained in both the medium and large sized spacesuits, and thought she would be fine in the large. However, it wasn’t until she performed a spacewalk that she realized that a medium fit her better, as she couldn’t maneuver comfortably in the large.
A person’s size requirements can change in space, according to a spokesperson for the Johnson Space Center in Houston, as living in microgravity can change a person’s body. Understandably, it can be hard to figure out a person’s size in space while they’re on the ground.
Unfortunately, there was only one working medium-sized spacesuit. While there were two medium-sized hard upper torsos on the International Space Station, only one was properly configured. It would have taken hours to get the second one ready, NASA made the call to change astronauts, as it would be both safer and easier that way.
Koch instead would perform the space walk with Nick Hague on March 29, and McClain will perform her next spacewalk on April 8 with David Saint-Jacques.
Spacesuits in the sizes of medium, large and extra-large sizes are available on the ISS, according to the Johnson Space Center spokesperson.
It is easy to cry foul about the absurdity of the situation. NASA, an agency with billions of dollars in their budget and all their engineering and technical know-how, could put a man on the moon in 1969 — and is planning to put another on the moon within the decade — but can’t coordinate a spacewalk with two women because their spacesuits are too big? That’s outrageous!
Reports of women having to wear ill-fitting equipment for work are not unusual, and this situation begs the question as to why NASA was not prepared for this scenario, as they knew that someone’s size could change in space.
Cries of sexism quickly followed the announcement, which was swiftly bashed over social media, because again, there was only one working suit these two women could wear.
It also belies a greater worry; NASA’s lack of preparedness.
They knew that bodies can change while living in space, so they must have known about the possibility that two suits of the same size might be needed. They had this planned almost a month in advance — did no one stop to check what sizes of suits they had readily available?
Additionally, while space is most likely at a premium on the ISS — no pun intended — why wasn’t there adequate supplies?
What if something happened to the first working spacesuit, shouldn’t there have been a second equipped and ready to go? Yes, there was a second medium hard upper-torso, but NASA obviously thought it wasn’t safe enough to equip it and have it ready in time, a process that would have taken hours while they had days to prepare. So if they were in a pinch and the medium sized spacesuit was compromised, they were in trouble. That is unacceptable. This is space we are talking about, possibly the most unforgiving place we have ever been. Mistakes will get people killed.
While it is possible that similar situations have happened before, albeit with two men or one man and one woman doing the walk, and maybe it was just bad luck that this happened to what was supposed to be an historic spacewalk, NASA had to have know that two mediums may have been needed, and they did not adequately prepare their astronauts for that scenario.
Finally, consider this: U.S. vice-president Mike Pence has called for NASA to put someone on the moon again by 2024 — four years earlier than the organization’s original timeline, according to recent reports. The timeline has left some experts skeptical, but NASA seems optimistic that they could pull it off. This announcement comes before NASA celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. Given that the last time they put someone on the moon was in 1972, NASA has a lot of work to do.
Hopefully, the next scheduled all-female space walk will go ahead as planned. But the concern still remains; if NASA can’t get two women to do a spacewalk, how are they possibly going to put another person on the moon before 2030?