Right Stuff, Wrong Sex

Updated: Oct 17, 2020

Anne McClain and Christina Koch, NASA

In 2019, astronauts Anne McClain and Christina Koch were scheduled for a 6.5-hour spacewalk. It was to be the first all-female spacewalk. Less than a week before the scheduled event, Anne McClain was pulled from the walk because there was only one medium-sized spacesuit aboard the International Space Station. Nick Hague was sent in McClain’s place because the spacesuit fit him better. It was to be McClain’s second spacewalk and Koch’s first. Unlike the Apollo suits in the 1960s and 1970s, which were custom-made for crew members, the suit that Collins is developing can accommodate astronauts of almost all sizes.

When she heard that the all-female spacewalk was postponed, Investigative reporter Fatima Syed tweeted: “I’m still not over the fact that NASA spacesuits aren't designed appropriately for women even though the 1st solo female spacewalk happened 35 years ago & the 2 women set to do the all-female spacewalk Friday were part of Nasa’s 2013 class, which was 50% female. They. Had. Time.

But IFC Dover, the company that makes the spacesuits for NASA said it is not that easy. The space station had a second medium-sized suit, but it could not be used until the oxygen tank was attached, and it was tested. That would take the space crew a whole day to complete. Jinny Ferl of IFC Dover said, “I am the first to say that STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics] is so important to get women into. But in this case, I have to say, this is not an issue of discrimination or shortsightedness or a system that doesn't represent women well.” When McClain tried out the large suit on a spacewalk, she realized the medium sized suit fit better and did not want to use the large suit. She thought it would be too dangerous for McClain, even though she trained in it. So, NASA decided to switch the astronauts instead of reconfiguring the suits. McClain tweeted: “Leaders must make tough calls, and I am fortunate to work with a team who trusts my judgment. We must never accept a risk that can instead be mitigated. Safety of the crew and execution of the mission come first."

Collins Aerospace used the publicity surrounding the change in spacewalk plans to announce that it was working to have more adaptable spacesuits ready for the lunar landing scheduled for 2024. This company says it has a lunar spacesuit that will be ready for NASA’s 2024 Moon mission.

Six months later, the first all-female space walk occurred, but Jessica Meir walked instead of McClain, whose mission had ended.

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