"Echoes of a bygone era" that favored larger body types were one of the factors that delayed the first all-woman spacewalk — although NASA found a way to solve the problem, the women who completed the spacewalk said in a recent Washington Post opinion piece.
NASA astronauts Jessica Meir and Christina Koch made up the first all-woman spacewalking crew, successfully completing their extravehicular activity and some additional, "get-ahead tasks" on Oct. 18. The milestone followed several months of delay in sending two women outside, largely due to a lack of appropriately sized spacesuits on the International Space Station.
"Last spring, though two fully certified female spacewalkers were ready to go out the hatch to make history, suits that would allow them to do so were not," the women explained in their article, which ran Monday (Nov. 11). "The sign of progress, however, was that this hitch resulted from a delayed cargo launch followed by an aborted crew launch — not from any lack of will."
The delay arose because NASA didn't have a medium-size spacesuit prepared for a spacewalk on the space station. Larger spacesuits were available, but those were too large for astronaut Anne McClain, who was originally scheduled to take part in the first scheduling of the all-woman spacewalk, to use comfortably.. The spacesuits, which were first designed in the 1970s before women were allowed to enter NASA's astronaut corps, do have swappable parts.
But switching out the upper torso, the piece that was not the correct size for McClain, in space can take up to 12 hours, and NASA decided it was best to deploy precious crew time elsewhere. NASA sent up another spacesuit in a July cargo spacecraft launch, and when the spacewalk schedule was rolled out, it was revealed that the first all-woman spacewalk would finally happen this fall.
Since the older spacesuits favor larger body types, because they were originally designed with only men in mind, this led to an underrepresentation of female spacewalkers over the decades, the women wrote. Only 15 women have performed spacewalks in space history, Koch and Meir wrote. Additionally, women have participated in only 37 out of the 221 spacewalks to service the space station, they said.
The times, however, have changed since the 1970s, Meir and Koch wrote. The last two astronaut classes selected were 50 percent women, 50 percent men. The astronauts emphatically explained that NASA was supportive throughout their training, and determined to ensure safe and effective future spacewalks.
"We received nothing but support in our training at NASA. Mentors of all sizes lent their expertise. Classmates guarded against biases that any one set of physical characteristics was inherently better for spacewalking than any other," Meir and Koch wrote.
"We knew that together, we could break down the faulty stereotypes built up by decades of limited-size spacesuits," the women added. "Everybody was on board, from technicians who suited us up for practice runs to the leaders who prioritized our training. It was in their eyes, their work, their high-fives."
Future astronauts will wear an improved and more adjustable spacesuit with the Artemis moon program, which aims to land the first woman and the next man on the moon by 2024. "They [astronauts] will be wearing spacesuits designed with enhanced mobility and a size range that's more extensive than ever before," the women wrote. "With these suits, astronauts' achievements will at last rely only on their own hard work and dedication."
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