Astronauts have conducted more than 200 spacewalks in the past two decades, and on Friday, March 28th, 2019 two astronauts are scheduled to replace some old solar panel batteries, a memorable excursion because both spacewalkers would be women!
That was until Monday, March 25th when it was announced that Anne McClain was replaced with a male astronaut Nick Hague and guess why according to the agency the ISS doesn’t have enough spacesuits on board that would fit both women. How could NASA miss this? They didn’t get the proper attire on the ISS before the women were set to launch? Didn’t they ask their sizes? Men have been on more than a dozen spacewalks, no problem, without this issue ever occurring.
Back in the 1960s before women ever began wearing spacesuits they were making them. The Apollo spacesuits were manufactured by the International Latex Corporation, the maker of Playtex bras and girdles. The high tech space suits were stitched together and custom made for individual astronauts who were all, you guessed it – men. When the space shuttle program began, it would be too expensive and time-consuming to hand-sewn custom made space suits for everyone on board now. In the 1970s they started developing pieces for arms, legs, torsos that the smallest of women and largest of men could fit. They came in five sizes, extra small, small, medium, large and extra large.
The suits did not take into account the different body shapes of men and women. For the same height and weight, women can have tremendously wider hips and narrower shoulders than men. And in the 1990s, several years after the first American women flew to space budget cuts caused NASA to cut back on the space suit program. Extra small was the first to go and small followed soon after.
This caused NASA to not only judge on qualifications and experience but on their size and body type too. Applicants had to be bigger to be selected, and today they still use the same 40-year-old space suits, no new ones have been made since they were designed. The space station currently has six spacesuits on board, six space suit torsos, two each in medium, large and extra large. But only some are actually wearable. One medium and extra large are spares and require long hours of prep to be able to use.
NASA has a ways to go to make a difference in their inclusion of women in spacewalks, it employs female astronauts and should be ready to accommodate more. It’s not a big request if women are already hired for the position!