When NASA announced earlier this month that it would be conducting its first all-female spacewalk in honor of Women’s History Month, featuring female astronauts Christina Koch and Anne McClain, people were like, “Awesome! Good job, NASA!” In fact, one might even say, if one were so inclined, that the move was one small step for female astronauts in NASA, and one giant leap for womankind. (Sorry.)
That enthusiasm was curbed, however, when NASA said that nope, sorry, it was calling off that whole all-female spacewalk thing. In a statement released on Monday, NASA announced that a male astronaut, Nick Hague, would replace one of the female astronauts, Anne McClain, in the spacewalk, because McClain required a spacesuit with a medium-sized torso. “Because only one medium-size torso can be made ready by Friday, Koch will wear it,” NASA said. Instead, Hague and Koch will do the spacewalk on Friday, while McClain will do a spacewalk on April 8th with astronaut David Saint-Jacques.
Humanity: Able to land a rover on Mars and communicate with it, or have a probe get close to a comet hurtling through space.
Also humanity: Hmm, we don't seem to have this in your size, Woman Astronaut.https://t.co/JzyV2g3IJi
— Olivier Knox (@OKnox) March 26, 2019
In 1969 NASA could send a man to the moon but in 2019 they can't get a second spacesuit made in time for the all-female spacewalk of two. 🙄 https://t.co/0qTWgzYJmF
— Kristyn Wong-Tam (@kristynwongtam) March 26, 2019
Naturally, NASA’s statement prompted outcry on Twitter, with many pointing out the irony of commemorating Women’s History Month by sending in a male astronaut to take a female astronaut’s place. And it’s true that NASA in general does have something of a gender parity problem: NASA administrators have been vocal about the need for the agency to hire more women, and according to one Science Magazine report, only about 15 percent of NASA’s planetary mission science team members are female. Although NASA appears to have made a valiant effort to remedy that (in 2013, half of its astronaut candidate class were women, including McClain and Koch), the spacesuit problem didn’t stop people from commenting generally on the issue of female representation in STEM.
To be fair to NASA, however, the spacesuit issue appears to be more of a logistical one than a gender-based one: according to a statement NASA spokesperson Stephanie Schierholz gave to NBC News, although there are two medium-sized spacesuits available, one is a spare that would require extensive reconfiguration and “it is more efficient to swap spacewalkers than to reconfigure the elements of the spacesuit.” And as Ars Technica reporter and NASA expert Eric Berger notes, having a well-fitting spacesuit is crucial to executing basic tasks in space, so “if McClain was uncomfortable in a large spacesuit, she (and NASA) made the correct call here.”
That said, NASA does have a general spacesuit shortage, according to Berger: there are only 11 currently in service, all of which were originally designed way back in the 1970s. So while it’s probably unfair to chalk up the cancellation of the all-female spacewalk to garden-variety sexism, it is probably fair to ask why one of the world’s largest and most sophisticated space programs can shoot a bunch of people in space, but can’t quite figure out how to efficiently dress them.