ON FRIDAY, NASA astronauts Jessica Meir and Christina Koch carried out the first all-women spacewalk in history. Their mission was to carry out repairs on the International Space Station. What makes it historic, however, is not just the fact that it is a first, but also the events leading up to the event, including a failed earlier attempt.
What happened the first time?
The first all-women spacewalk was originally meant to happen on March 29. Koch was one of the astronauts then, too, the other being Anne McClain. It did not happen because the International Space Station did not have enough spacesuits McClain’s size.
McClain had trained in two sizes, and was meant to wear a size-large upper torso on the historic spacewalk. After one spacewalk (not all-women), she figured that a size-medium upper torso would work best for her. However, only one such upper torso was ready for use at that time, and Koch was to wear that one. So, McClain’s slot was given to Nick Hague (size large), who walked with Koch.
What is “ready for use”?
Spacesuits need to be configured to an astronaut’s body size before a spacewalk. It can take up to 12 hours to safely prepare spacesuits for a spacewalk, Stephanie Schierholz, NASA spokesperson, told space.com at that time. To avoid delay and for safety reasons, the swap was necessary. Putting on a spacesuit takes 45 minutes.
On March 27, McClain tweeted, “This decision was based on my recommendation. Leaders must make tough calls, and I am fortunate to work with a team who trusts my judgement. We must never accept a risk that can instead be mitigated. Safety of the crew and execution of the mission come first.”
McClain later went on another spacewalk.
If safety was the concern, why was the change of schedule an issue?
It sparked widespread criticism. While NASA is generally regarded as being sensitive to gender issues (Koch’s and Meir’s 2013 class of astronaut candidates was 50% women), many women saw the lack of availability of the right spacesuit as a sign of NASA’s structural problems with regard to women astronauts.
“Make another suit,” Hillary Clinton tweeted, while British politician Amelia Womack tweeted, “How women miss out when the world is built around men.” And Author Mary Robinette Kowal, winner of the Hugo Award, posted a tweet that appeared to imply gender bias in the spacesuits sizes that were given priority.
“NASA used to have small, medium, large and extra-large suits. For budget reasons, the small and XL suits were cut. However, many of the male astronauts could not fit into the L suits, so the XLs were brought back. The small suits never were,” Robinette Kowal tweeted.
Until now, 213 men and 14 women (including Koch) had done spacewalks; Meir became the 15th.
As the debate raged, NASA tweeted, “We’ve seen your tweets about spacesuit availability for Friday’s spacewalk. To clarify, we have more than 1 medium size space suit torso aboard, but to stay on schedule with @Space_Station upgrades, it’s safer & faster to change spacewalker assignments than reconfigure spacesuits.”
Why must spacesuit specifications be so precise?
A spacesuit, or Extravehicular Mobility Unit (EMU), is worn to be able to work outside the space station. Spacesuits provide astronauts with oxygen supply while they are in the vacuum of space and the suits also give them protection against extreme temperatures, radiation and space dust.
An EMU consists of components such as the upper torso, lower torso, gloves and arms, which are manufactured in different sizes and assembled together in combinations that fits an astronaut best. In McClain’s case, it would have meant swapping parts. Spacesuits are not designed differently for men and women astronauts.
The EMUs currently in use were developed in 1974. These are reusable, and have been refurbished and redesigned many times in the last 40 years.
Is there no plan for an upgrade?
On October 15, NASA unveiled its next generation of spacesuits. One kind, called xEMU, will improve upon suits previously worn during the Apollo era and those that are currently in use for carrying out spacewalks outside the ISS. The Orion suit, meanwhile, is designed for a custom fit and incorporates safety technology and mobility features that will help protect astronauts during launch, in emergency situations, high-risk parts of missions near the Moon, and during the high-speed return to Earth, NASA said.
Significantly, the xEMU suits will be worn by astronauts on the Artemis mission to the Moon. As NASA pointed out while announcing the new spacesuits, the mission will seek to put the next man and the first woman on the Moon.