Spacesuits Don’t Come in Size ‘Small’
History's first all-female spacewalk was thwarted by a lack of smaller suits.
NPR (“NASA Scraps First All-Female Spacewalk For Want Of A Medium-Sized Spacesuit“):
History was supposed to be made Friday when, for the first time ever, two female astronauts were scheduled to do a spacewalk together outside the International Space Station. However, one of the astronauts was switched out this week because of a lack of “spacesuit availability.”
Last week, NASA astronaut Anne McClain wore a large-sized spacesuit to conduct her first-ever spacewalk, where she helped swap out aging batteries that store energy collected by the station’s solar panels. While she was working, she realized that her suit was too big to maneuver in comfortably. Instead of the large, she would need a medium-sized hard upper torso – what NASA calls “the shirt of the spacesuit.”
Two mediums existed on the ISS, but only one was prepped for a spacewalk. Instead of devoting extensive crew time to make the extra medium-sized suit space-worthy by Friday, NASA decided to restaff: Astronaut Nick Hague will go in McClain’s place, and do the walk with astronaut Christina Koch.
“When you have the option of just switching the people, the mission becomes more important than a cool milestone,” NASA spokeswoman Stephanie Schierholz told the New York Times.
Well, sure. But it’s not like the composition of the crew was unknown. Why not stock suits to fit the astronauts assigned to the mission?
Preparing a spacesuit for exposure to the vacuum of space is no easy task. Last week McClain posted a video of her doing a “loop scrub” on a suit, necessary to keep the cooling system running properly. Astronauts also conduct several fit checks as they prepare for spacewalks, according to Space.com, as astronauts grow taller in the microgravity of space. In fact, McClain said on Twitter earlier this month that she had already grown 2 inches in the few months she’s been on the ISS.
Well, okay. But that makes the problem even harder to understand. McClain now needs a larger suit than she did at launch; yet the issue is the suits aren’t small enough. Were they figuring she would grow into it?
McClain and Koch were both part of NASA’s 2013 astronaut candidate class, in which eight potential astronauts were chosen from more than 6,100 applicants. The class had an equal split between women and men.
The availability of enough spacesuit sizes has long been a bit of a sensitive subject for NASA. As NPR’s Nell Greenfieldboyce reported in 2006, opportunities for women may have been hampered by the fact that spacesuits only came in medium, large, and extra-large sizes. They used to come in small, but that size was cut in the 1990s when NASA had to redesign the suits because of a technical glitch.
That meant anyone who was on the smaller side wouldn’t be able to make a spacewalk, astronaut Mike Fincke told Greenfieldboyce. And when the agency looked into the issue in 2003, it found that about a third of its female astronauts couldn’t fit into existing suits. But Lara Kearney, who worked on the small suit, said it’s not about gender, but rather about logistics and cost-effectiveness. “Do we spend around $15 million to accommodate, relatively speaking, a few more people than we could today? Or, do we take that money, and turn it towards the suit development for the next generation?”
NASA has no current plans for an all-female spacewalk, but given that 12 of the agency’s 38 active astronauts are women, Schierholz told the Times she thinks it’s only a matter of time. “We’re sort of getting to the point of inevitability.”
Indeed. I don’t pretend to understand the technical and logistical challenges of making spacesuits. I can accept the notion that it’s too expensive to create a small suit because it would require further miniaturization or a new template that would hardly get used simply doesn’t make sense given economies of scale. But it’s bizarre, indeed, that we can make medium suits but can’t afford enough of them to meet crew demand. Then again, we’re eighteen years into the war in Afghanistan and still don’t have body armor that fits the female torso.