Here’s why NASA cancelled the first all-female spacewalk


It was supposed to be the first all-female spacewalk in history. Here’s why a man will take one of the spots instead.
USA Today

When Canadian Space Agency flight controller Kristen Facciol announced March 1 via Twitter that she would help guide the first all-female spacewalk, the whole world tuned in to celebrate what would have been a momentous event. But a lack of readily available spacesuit sizes onboard the International Space Station prevented a historic event from occurring. 

On Monday, NASA announced that female astronauts Anne McClain and Christina Koch would not conduct this Friday’s spacewalk together. Instead, male astronaut Nick Hague — who performed his first spacewalk on March 22 with McClain — will now join Koch this week. 

The cause? There’s only one spacesuit available that best fits both McClain and Koch. 

Before astronauts embark for their stay aboard the space station, they practice training in their spacesuits on the ground, NASA spokeswoman Stephanie Schierholz told Florida Today. But as much as scientists try to recreate the feeling of microgravity, it’s impossible to completely re-create the sensation of being in space. 

All-female spacewalk cancelled: NASA cancels historic spacewalk because there weren’t enough medium-sized spacesuits

“They’re essentially floating in their spacesuit in space,” Shierholz said. This makes it hard to gauge on land exactly which spacesuit size will best fit the astronaut in space.

“Anne had trained in a medium and large spacesuit on the ground,” Shierholz said. “But when she did her spacewalk last week with the medium-sized suit, she realized she could move better in it in space. It’s important (the astronauts) feel good in space.” 

Friday’s spacewalk will mark the second in a series of three spacewalks originally scheduled to take place last fall. The delay is another reason the space station did not have the right spacesuit sizes available in time. 

Not enough spacesuits in women’s sizes?!: Twitter reacts to NASA canceling all-female spacewalk

If the spacewalks had taken place when they were originally scheduled, there never would have been an option for an all-female spacewalk as there would have been more male spacewalkers and no need for an extra medium-size suit, Shierholz said.

There are currently six spacesuits aboard the space station: two medium, two large and two extra-large hard upper torso — the shirt of the spacesuit. Of those six spacesuits, two are spares, one medium and one extra-large, that would need extra time for configuration before wearing, Schierholz said. The configuration process involves multiple leak tests.

Since announcing the cancellation of the all-female spacewalk, several people have taken to social media to voice their reactions

Yet despite people’s frustrations, NASA argues that its safer to change spacewalk assignment than to configure the suit. 

“It’s less risky,” Shierholz said. “This way, all spacewalks can stay on schedule and the astronauts can still do the number of spacewalks they are scheduled for.” 

Koch will wear the medium-size suit for this Friday’s spacewalk, while McClain is scheduled to wear it for her second spacewalk on April 8 with Canadian Space Agency astronaut David Saint-Jacques. 

“Spacewalks are very challenging, both mentally and physically, so we want astronauts not to have to worry about their spacesuits while conducting them,” Shierholz said. 

Typically lasting five to eight hours, spacewalks allow astronauts to work on the outside of the space station, conduct science experiments and test out new equipment. Last week’s spacewalk lasted almost seven hours; this week’s walk is expected to last about 6.5 hours. 

During the March 22 spacewalk, McClain and Hague installed lithium-ion batteries for one pair of the station’s solar arrays. Hague and Koch will install additional batteries during this week’s walk.

The spacewalk is scheduled to begin at 8:20 a.m. EDT, with live coverage starting at 6:30 a.m. EDT on NASA TV

The spacewalk planned for April 8 will have McClain and Saint-Jacques lay out jumper cables for the Canadian-built robotic arm, known as Candarm2, as well as installing cables for more expansive wireless communications coverage and enhance hardwired computer network capability, according to NASA. 

Despite the cancellation of what was supposed to be a historic moment, Shierholz is optimistic there will eventually be an all-female spacewalk.

“It’s inevitable that we’ll have an all-female spacewalk soon,” she said. 

McClain and Koch were both part of the 2013 astronaut class, half of which were women. For the 2017 class, there are five women and six men, Schierholz confirmed. In 1978, when NASA introduced the first six female astronauts, they made up only 10 percent of the active astronaut corps. In the 40 years since that selection, women now make up 34 percent of active astronauts at NASA.

“Anne became the 13th female spacewalker and Christina will be the 14th and we still have female controllers — Mary Lawrence and Jackie Kagey serving as console, and it’s still Women’s History month, so it’s still cool,” Shierholz said. “It’s just not what we hoped it would be, but it’s still cool.” 

Follow Antonia Jaramillo on Twitter at @AntoniaJ_11.


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