Well, this is a bit embarrassing. Earlier this month NASA caused a ripple of excitement by announcing the first all-woman spacewalk in history. Now they’re having to walk that back instead, after realizing they only have one spacesuit the right size for the two women currently onboard the International Space Station (ISS).
This Friday, March 29, astronauts Anne McClain and Christina Koch were to leave the ISS to replace nickel-hydride batteries with more advanced lithium-ion versions on one of the station’s solar arrays, described from 24 minutes in this video. The mission was to be the first time two women spacewalked together.
Now, NASA has acknowledged the event will not take place “in part” because of a lack of suitably sized suits. Instead, Koch will go with Nick Hague. Both women are best fitted by a medium-sized upper torso suit, of which the ISS only has one ready to wear. McClain realized a medium-sized suit fit her best during her first spacewalk. While wearing a larger-than-ideal suit is better than squeezing into an uncomfortably small one (although the ISS carries no small suits), it can still impede capacity, a risk not worth taking in the hazardous and high-pressure environment of a spacewalk.
McClain, who made her first spacewalk on March 22, is now scheduled to make another one on April 8 with Canadian astronaut David Saint-Jacques. That mission will lay cables between the Unity module and the S0 truss, providing a back-up power route for the Canadian robot arm. The walk will also expand the wireless coverage and computer network capability of the station.
Since both women will still make spacewalks, the setback for the cause of equality in orbit is small. Besides taking away a symbolic win, however, the reason for the change serves as a reminder of the way barriers to women in science can be subtle and unexpected. It occurs a week after the Sunday Times gave Alessandro Strumia, previously affiliated with CERN, almost a full page to proclaim there are no “walls to keep out women” from science. Instead, Strumia claimed, against a mountain of evidence, women are just not interested in physics.
Although Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in space in 1963, two years after Yuri Gagarin’s flight, it was 19 years before another woman left the Earth’s atmosphere, a period in which many men had the same opportunity. The first spacewalk by a woman was not until 1984, but numbers are rising fast, with the proportion of women astronauts quadrupling in the last four decades. Koch and McClain’s 2013 NASA class was half women. Koch will be the 14th to spacewalk.
Koch and Hague’s mission will still have plenty of female ground support. Both the lead flight director and lead EVA flight controller will be women, reflecting the fact change is coming to NASA, even if it is sometimes bumpy.