Why an All-Woman Spacewalk Hasn't Happened Sooner

NASA has slowly addressed a lack of opportunities for women astronauts, but the space agency only just fixed a lingering spacesuit issue.

23.10.2019 | by Christy Romer
Photo by NASA
Photo by NASA

On Friday 18 October 2019, 400km above the earth, history was made. Astronauts Jessica Meir and Christina Koch became the first all-female team to complete a spacewalk outside the International Space Station (ISS).

Tethered to the spaceship, the astronauts traversed punishing conditions (extreme cold, lack of oxygen, cosmic radiation and dangerously low pressure), protected by their top-of-the-range space suits, in order to repair a malfunctioning power controller. It was a strenuous, intricate process—one that US space agency NASA described as the “most physically challenging thing” astronauts do. Keir and Koch’s spacewalk went smoothly, with the pair even finding time to complete a few extra tasks.

What’s surprising is that in 61 years of NASA history, there had never before been a case in which two women went on a spacewalk at the same time. Only 15 women had ever performed spacewalks, compared to more than 200 men. Last Friday’s outing was the first spacewalk for Meir and the fourth for Koch.

The explanation—perhaps obvious—is simple: bias.

Specifically, bias in spacesuit design.


Photo of spacewalk

(l-r) Astronauts Jessica Meir and Christina Koch. Credit: NASA


A history of a suit

Verge reports that the current spacesuits onboard the ISS were designed in the 1970s and have “more-or-less” stayed the same ever since. As NASA historically preferred male astronauts, these suits were fit towards men.

An article in Forbes adds that these suits, known as Extra-Vehicular Mobility Units, are bulky and unwieldy in order to carry out a range of life-saving functions as wearers move around in space. Carrying out even basic tasks in the suit is incredibly difficult, and the demands of a spacewalk—intricate engineering repairs—mean that without a perfectly fitting suit, mobility is restricted and the job becomes too unsafe and inefficient.

To deal with this, spacesuits are made up of differently-sized elements for the legs, lower arm, waist and boots. The “Hard Upper Torso,” or HUT, comes in “Medium, Large or Extra Large.”

It’s this HUT that is the problem. For the most part, Large and Extra Large don’t fit women—and NASA never properly considered making smaller sizes. This came to a head in an all-female spacewalk scheduled earlier in 2019, when the astronaut set to accompany Koch, Anne McClain, was forced to drop out as there was only access to one medium HUT.

Former NASA deputy administrator Dava Newman tells Verge that the spacewalking issue has nothing to do with female physique, as the training provided to astronauts while on Earth is extremely rigorous. “Anyone who’s selected in the astronaut corps has what it takes to perform spacewalks. The physique is not the issue, they have the capabilities in terms of athletic performance.”

She continued: “That is, if they’re in the right suit.”


Changing context

The anti-female bias, highlighted in films such as Hidden Figures, has slowly been changing. NASA notes that in the 2013 class of astronaut candidates, through which Koch and Meir entered the system, 50 percent were women. Similar attempts have been made to rescue the role of women lost to history, such as Margaret Hamilton, the woman who led the software team that landed an astronaut on the moon in 1969.

Koch praised the “historical nature” in a statement on the NASA website. “In the past women haven’t always been at the table. It’s wonderful to be contributing to the space program at a time when all contributions are being accepted, when everyone has a role.

“That can lead in turn to increased chance for success. There are a lot of people who derive motivation from inspiring stories of people who look like them, and I think it’s an important story to tell.”

NASA is aiming to put the first woman on the moon by 2024 through its Artemis programme and, as part of this, has unveiled a new, more slim-fitting spacesuit design.

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