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All-Female Spacewalk Back on After NASA Sends Up 2nd Medium Spacesuit

More than six months after canceling what would have been the first spacewalk conducted by a team of two women, NASA has rescheduled the historic moment for Oct. 21.

The spacewalk will be conducted by NASA astronauts Christina Koch, who has been living in space since March and was scheduled for the original all-women spacewalk, and Jessica Meir, who arrived at the International Space Station in September. The newly scheduled spacewalk is possible because NASA sent up a new spacesuit that was configured with a medium-size hard upper torso in order to meet future staffing requirements.

"It turns out that over the next couple of years we're having a lot of medium-suit people fly, and so that's the sweet spot," Kirk Shireman, program manager for the International Space Station, said during a news conference held today (Oct. 4).

Related: Spacesuit Sizing Stymied a Historic NASA Moment, and It May Always Be Tricky

NASA astronauts Jessica Meir and Christina Koch are both scheduled to conduct spacewalks during a series of five maneuvers in October 2019.

(Image credit: NASA)

The hubbub began in late March, when Koch was scheduled to conduct a spacewalk with NASA colleague Anne McClain, who has since returned to Earth. At the time, there were four spacesuits on the International Space Station ready for use: one with a medium-size torso, two with large torsos and one with an extra-large torso.

McClain had trained on the ground in medium and large units and thought she would be fine in either size. But she realized during her first spacewalk that the medium size was a better fit. Koch was already slated to use that medium unit during their joint excursion. There are additional torso units on board the station, but changing them out is extremely time-consuming; the procedure can take up 12 hours of valuable astronaut time. McClain recommended to NASA that she be replaced by colleague Nick Hague.

"We've always had mediums on orbit," Shireman said today. "There is an optimization of crew time as well so every time you change a suit from one size to another — frankly even in the same size from one crewmember to another — there are still adjustments that have to be made, and that takes time." 

NASA concurred with McClain's recommendation and made the staffing switch rather than reconfiguring suits. McClain was outspoken that the restaffing was her decision and that it was made to ensure safety during spacewalks. Nevertheless, the "cancellation" of the all-female spacewalk prompted backlash.

In April, NASA offered more details about the decision and added that the agency didn't have any plans to format additional medium-torso suits onboard the orbiting laboratory. (The suits are not differentiated by sex or gender; NASA's female astronauts simply tend to need smaller sizes than male astronauts.) Instead, it now transpires, NASA arranged for an additional suit to join the astronauts' supplies.

The agency keeps a close eye on the age of individual spacesuit components and the crewmembers who could staff a spacewalk within the ensuing couple of years. Those factors prompted NASA's decision to send up a new suit with a medium torso unit earlier this year, Shireman said.

NASA astronauts Jessica Meir and Christina Koch conduct an interview on the International Space Station.

(Image credit: NASA TV)

The move comes in the midst of NASA's continuing push for the Artemis program, which the agency has billed as a project to land the first woman and the next man on the moon by 2024. (All 12 people who have walked on the moon to date were white, American men who flew during the Apollo program.)

The next moon-landing mission will need different spacesuits; those on the space station are meant only for maneuvers in microgravity and cannot be used on the lunar surface. But the Artemis program is pushing NASA's female astronauts — and the challenges they sometimes face — to the foreground.

Right now, there are just 12 women in NASA's active astronaut corps who could fill that first slot. McClain, Koch and Meir are all members of the same astronaut training class, and Koch and Meir are particularly close friends.

"We called ourselves space sisters because we were really joined at the hip going through all the classes together," Meir told a reporter during an interview broadcasted by NASA. "We are all smiles up here with this reunion."

Space.com associate editor Hanneke Weitering contributed reporting to this story. Email Meghan Bartels at mbartels@space.com or follow her @meghanbartels. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook. 

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