First All-Female Spacewalk Canceled due to Spacesuit Issue

NASA’s last-minute decision halted a highly anticipated historic event, while bringing to light long-standing issues regarding gender diversity.
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NASA canceled the first all-female spacewalk four days before its step-off.

Initial reports from the space agency seemed to imply that one of the women was responsible for the cancellation, as she needed an unexpected spacesuit size change. Both of the women are engineers whom NASA had touted as groundbreakers. The last-minute switch required that the two women astronauts take turns wearing the only spacesuit that fit both of them, meaning they could no longer do the spacewalk together.

NASA astronaut Anne McClain

“Anne McClain had planned to wear a ‘large’ hard upper torso for the second spacewalk. However, based on her experience in the first spacewalk in the series, McClain determined that although she has trained in both medium and large torsos, the medium was a better fit for her in space,” NASA said in a press release on March 25.

“To accommodate that preference, Christina Koch will wear the medium torso on March 29, and McClain will wear it on April 8.”

The bigger question, however, is why wouldn’t NASA have two medium-sized spacesuits with a hard upper torso, ready to go? After all, NASA has overseen 160 spacewalks in the past 54 years. And why wouldn’t backup spacesuits of both possible sizes — medium and large — already have been fitted?

NASA spokeswoman Brandi Dean, at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, said in a statement, “We do our best to anticipate the spacesuit sizes that each astronaut will need, based on the spacesuit size they wore in training on the ground, and in some cases (including McClain’s), astronauts train in multiple sizes. However, individuals’ sizing needs may change when they are in orbit, in response to the changes living in microgravity can bring about in a body.

“In addition, no one [single] training environment can fully simulate performing a spacewalk in microgravity, and an individual may find that their sizing preferences change in space,” according to the statement.

Asked why NASA couldn’t have had extra, custom-fitted spacesuits on hand, without the need for last-minute adjustments, NASA emailed, “We currently have two medium hard upper torsos, two large, and two extra large. However, one of the mediums and one of the extra larges are spares that would need additional time for configuration before a spacewalk.”

Not a new issue

Thirteen years ago — in 2006 — veteran spacewalker Mike Fincke told National Public Radio (NPR) that there was a little-known reason — besides men’s head start — that more than 150 male astronauts had spacewalked at that time, while only seven women had done so. See the NPR story.

“Our spacesuits only come in medium, large, and extra-large,” Fincke told NPR at the time. “Anybody who is on the smaller side … they will not be able to have a chance to go outside (on a spacewalk).”

It’s a serious issue because, if astronauts’ suits are too big, they’ll float inside the suit because of zero gravity — and they will have trouble bending their knees and elbows.

Also in the NPR story, former astronaut Bonnie Dunbar, Ph.D., bemoaned budget cutbacks that resulted in fewer custom-made spacesuit sizes. She is quoted as saying, “I do not want to turn to a young girl who has all the talent in the world, becomes an extraordinary engineer, but isn’t the right size, to tell her, ‘I’m sorry but our nation can’t build a suit for you.’” Dr. Dunbar added, “It’s not the biggest expenditure. And it’s not an engineering challenge that can’t be overcome.”

Dr. Dunbar flew on the shuttle five times. A SWE Achievement Award recipient as well as a SWE Resnik Challenger Medal recipient, she is currently an aerospace engineering professor at Texas A&M University, where she heads a spacesuit-design lab.

In 2017, NPR reported that NASA had only 11 spacesuits in use, and they were designed decades ago.

The spacesuit designer, Pablo de León, Ph.D., said at the time that funding never came through to update the 1970s-era spacesuits, and he estimated that a completely redesigned spacesuit would cost as much as $250 million.

NASA confirmed in a statement March 26 that the space agency, indeed, has only 11 “portal life support systems” — a necessary element of a spacesuit. And today’s spacesuits are refurbishments of ones made four decades ago, the NASA spokeswoman said.

Yet she added this hopeful sentence: “Rather than continue building these, we are focusing our resources on building the next generation of spacesuits, and one of the things we’re looking at is how to design them to accommodate the largest possible range of sizes.”

The historic all-female spacewalk was to have occurred during Women’s History Month — and nearly 35 years after Russian cosmonaut Svetlana Savitskaya became the first woman to walk in space, and 56 years after Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman to orbit the Earth.

NASA had previously touted that the two women on the spacewalk were to be supported by three other women: lead flight director Mary Lawrence; lead spacewalk flight controller Jackie Kagey; and Canadian Space Agency flight controller Kristen Facciol, P.Eng., who was at the console at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.

The agency also issued a press release noting that both McClain and Koch were part of the 2013 astronaut class, half of whom were women, and came from the second-largest number of applications NASA had ever received — more than 6,100.

McClain is a senior U.S. Army aviator who graduated from West Point with a degree in mechanical/aeronautical engineering. A 2002 Marshall Scholar, McClain earned a master’s in aerospace engineering from the University of Bath in Bath, England, and a master’s in international relations from the University of Bristol in Bristol, England.

Koch, the space station’s flight engineer, graduated from North Carolina State University with bachelor’s degrees in electrical engineering and physics, and a master’s in electrical engineering.

NASA and space agencies worldwide still have room to improve in other ways that would benefit women, including recognizing the unique diversities of their crews, experts say.

For example, none of the space agencies keep data on the sexual orientation of their crews, and generally keep the identities of lesbian and gay astronauts under wraps, according to an analysis of diversity within space crews.

“On the astronauts’ Wikipedia profiles, there is no mention [whether] they are part of the LGBTQ community,” said Victoria Smith, a staff researcher for Satellite, a Salt Lake City-based online comparison engine that conducted an analysis of astronauts’ genders and ethnicities worldwide.

The late Sally Ride, Ph.D., an engineer and a physicist, was the only astronaut identified as a lesbian, and her gender identity was revealed only upon her death on July 23, 2012. She became the first American woman in space in 1983.

Michael Cassutt, the author of Who’s Who In Space, was quoted on as saying that any disclosure that didn’t fit the “Right Stuff” stereotype would be a “career-wrecker.”

Nevertheless, NASA posts on its website a press release describing its creation in 2016 of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender and Queer (LGBTQ) Special Emphasis Program. The program manager works with agency leaders to identify and address key issues and areas affecting NASA’s LGBTQ employees and allies, the press release states. “We believe we are creating an inclusive environment that is conducive to the recognition, development, understanding, and utilization of each employee’s abilities, skills, and knowledge in order to achieve maximum productivity,” the release continues.

The initiative continues, despite the U.S. Department of Defense’s announcement that President Trump’s ban on open transgender people serving in the military will go into effect April 12.

NASA astronaut Christina Koch

Diversity in outer space

The analysis of diversity in outer space also contains hopeful news. It shows women now represent 32 percent of astronauts worldwide. That’s a fourfold increase from the 1970s, when women made up only 8 percent of astronauts selected to travel in space.

  • Women make up 14.73 percent of the NASA astronauts selected for space travel, but the agency still beats Russia’s Roscosmos and the European Space Agency in the ratio of both women and people of color selected for space travel.
  • Though the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency launched fewer missions, it has selected the highest percentage of women and people of color for space travel.
  • At 88 percent of total space travelers, white astronauts still make up the majority of people in space from all space agencies. Asians account for 7 percent of all astronauts, and African-Americans and Hispanics account for 2 percent each.
  • Spaceflight in the 1970s started out with people of color making up only 8 percent of active astronauts. Fast forward to the 2010s, where we see people of color making up 24 percent of space travelers.

The diversity-by-decade comparison looks at the percentage of women and people of color sent by all agencies in each decade. The people of color category for the decade includes astronauts from all census-designated races other than Caucasian. The ethnicity comparison provides a breakdown of the percentage of people from each specific race group sent by all agencies over time. So, the latter represents each race group individually and spanning across all seven decades rather than in terms of people of color and by decade. Read more here.

American Peggy Whitson, Ph.D., who went to high school in Iowa and earned her bachelor’s in biology and chemistry from Iowa Wesleyan College, claims the record as the U.S. astronaut with the most cumulative time spent in space, according to her NASA biography. Her accomplishment was made possible by NASA’s selection her senior year of high school on Jan. 16, 1978, of its first diverse class of astronauts, including the first woman, the first African-American, and the first Asian-American astronaut. When NASA made its selection of that first diverse class, nine years had passed since the last astronaut selection, during which time the Apollo program also had ended.

According to a statement on its website, “NASA was preparing for a new era of human spaceflight using the yet-to-fly space shuttles, which could accommodate as many as six mission specialist astronauts in addition to the pilot and commander who would fly it. Previously, other than a handful of scientist-astronauts, NASA only selected astronauts with military jet pilot experience, all of whom were men. With the addition of mission specialists, [NASA] opened the position to women and also sought a broader range of candidates who were scientists and engineers.

“When those first six women joined the astronaut corps in 1978, they made up nearly 10 percent of the active astronaut corps. In the 40 years since that selection, NASA has selected its first astronaut candidate class with equal numbers of women and men, and women now comprise 34 percent of the active astronauts at NASA. The first African-American and first Asian-American astronauts added 6 percent racial diversity to the astronaut corps. Today, African-American, Asian, Pacific Islander, Hispanic, and multiracial astronauts are 24 percent of NASA’s active astronaut corps.”

Another new factor has influenced astronauts’ ability to influence the next generation — the Twittersphere. The Canadian flight controller initially slated to work on the all-female mission revealed her role via Twitter.

Yet Twitter also is filled with hateful, sexist, and/or misogynistic attitudes that online platforms provide. Among those posts, in reaction to NASA’s first all-female spacewalk cancellation, were:

  • [Implying the spacesuit change had something to do with the size of the astronaut’s breasts] — I always support the members of the itty bitty titty committee.
  • Women can never get dressed on time!
  • It’s very sexist to have no men on this walk.
  • Did she get a boob job without telling anyone?
  • Oh! I thought it was postponed due to the female Astronauts didn’t want their suits to clash, and couldn’t find the right colour nail varnish for the walk.

The social media fury drowned out the actual work of the astronauts. On March 29, astronauts Christina Koch and Nick Hague successfully connected three newer, more powerful lithium-ion batteries to replace the previous six nickel-hydrogen batteries that provide power for one channel on one pair of the International Space Station’s solar arrays. The new batteries provide an improved and more-efficient power capacity for operations.

Then, on April 8, David Saint-Jacques, M.D., Ph.D., of the Canadian Space Agency, completed the first spacewalk of his career when he and Anne McClain successfully established a redundant path of power to the Canadian-built robotic arm, known as Canadarm2, and installed cables to provide for more-expansive wireless communications coverage outside the orbital complex, as well as for enhanced hardwired computer network capability. The duo also relocated an adapter plate from the first spacewalk in preparation for future battery-upgrade operations. This was the third spacewalk in just under a month on the space station.