After huge media coverage for the first All-Women’s Spacewalk, NASA made bigger news when they cancelled the “All Women’s” part of the spacewalk. Many sources are claiming this is an example of sexism in the aerospace industry. I can personally vouch for the many difficulties of being a woman in STEM in modern day society. And I have to take a step back and consider what that means the women before me had to fight against. With all that being said, I would like to claim that this is not an example of sexism or gender inequality.
Let's look at the facts of this spacewalk.
It is actually super cool on its own, without all the controversy. There are three spacewalks that make up this entire mission to replace the space station batteries with new lithium ones. They are well planned and scheduled to occur on specific days. The second spacewalk of the mission was recently (like within the last few weeks) scheduled to be all female. The first and third spacewalks included men as well as women.
There are four lead positions for a successful mission: two astronauts (obviously), a flight director, and a control team member. The two astronauts were originally Christina Koch and Anne McClain. But the reason for the female team hype is due to the ground support team being all female as well with Mary Lawrence as flight director and Kristen Facciol as control team member. The important thing was these women didn’t get their positions on the team by being a woman. They got their respected positions through hard work in their career and happened to get put on the same spacewalk. There was no female power move and no “stick it to the man” in the formation of this team, it is all based on pure talent and dedication.
Now why didn’t it happen? McClain performed a successful spacewalk earlier this month with astronaut Nick Hague where she wore a large space suit. After fittings, it was noted McClain was on the cusp between the sizes, but determined she would wear a large space suit and the plan was for a large space suit. After this first walk McClain herself determined that she would be more comfortable and safer in a medium suit. Now this is the controversial part so stay with me. Astronaut Koch also wears a medium space suit and the space station only has one medium space suit. As a result, Hague went out with Koch instead of McClain. So the claim is that this is incredibly sexist of NASA to not have more than one medium space suit on hand. It follows the idea that NASA is such a boy’s club that they only have large suits readily available. Many accusations have been flung regarding this with the most popular being Clinton’s simple yet misguided tweet “Make another suit.”
The age old issues of money, space, and time.
I wanted to put some of these ideas to rest. First off, a space suit alone is easily worth $2 million in a safety process that involves time and precision to ensure everything is sealed, tested and functioning. It then would then have to be sent to the ISS on the next shipment launch, if there was even room for a bulky space suit. (This is also why we don’t have space suits of every size and color on the ISS: limited space). The next shipment is scheduled for April 4th, if a suit could even be ready by then. If not, it would be another two weeks before the next shipment, if not longer. That is a long time to put off a mission waiting for suit. So we have the age old issues of money, space, and time. Nothing sexist about that.
This mission, as I mentioned, involves three very accurately scheduled spacewalks and putting millions of dollars on hold while we spend millions of more dollars for a suit to ensure the media is content is an absurd suggestion.
Also, this is a very common problem in flight. Often times pilots are removed from a mission due to their flight suits not fitting correctly (too large or too small). Knowingly putting someone at risk of equipment failure is not tolerated when it comes to the seriousness of flight, no matter the altitude.
I will say that McClain has been very regal through this process, explaining to the public that this was her decision to pull herself from this walk and she has no animosity towards NASA. (Just another reason she is my favorite!) Similarly, the spacewalk was not cancelled but had a male astronaut step in making it not an All-Female team, just a majority female team. Which is still amazing if you ask me.
Is the All-Women's team promoting sexism?
On the topic of the female spacewalks, a lot of people originally rejected the announcement and hype for the All-Women’s team. They claimed reporting on it kept sexism alive. I originally was going to post about this in much greater detail but due to the events that followed… there was just too much to talk about. I understand where this is coming from, but I also want to bring the issue of women in space to light. Back when humans were first going to space (1960s), there was a big conference room was full of men and they decided to not allow women to go to space for many reasons: they wouldn’t be strong enough, they wouldn’t be able to mentally handle the pressure, their bones were more brittle and could break and, my personal favorite, they would probably die if they had their period with no gravity. Plus sending that many tampons would weigh down the rocket. I don’t know how the men in this room determined they would need 100 tampons per woman per week, but it really shows how important it is to have women weighing in conversations that revolve around women. Once you consider that it only took 60 years for women to go from “not allowed in space” to being on an All-Female leadership team for a spacewalk… yeah it is very exciting. It is a good example of how much we have changed and grown when looked at with a level head.
In the same note, I want to explain something about the space industry that you will see the more you begin to follow it. They love to report firsts. They eat it up. It could be the first time an astronaut had a hangnail in space and it would get documented. And that is because literally everything we do in space is the first. While I understand how high media on an All-Female team could be seen as counter productive, it mostly is just an exciting time. Like how everything a baby does is the most beautiful and earth shattering first in the eyes of their parent. We started entering the realm of space around the same time communication started taking off. This means every first in space had and will have the ability to be properly documented and shared with anyone and everyone who will listen.
Not never, just not yet.
That is why the public was so excited for this space walk. And that is why I understand the huge disappointment. But lets not confuse disappointment with sexism. It was a lucky coincidence that the leadership for the spacewalk was all women. It was the same luck that shifted just a tad and changed course to make this a “not yet” in the space books. No sexism, no unfair treatment, just maybe a bit more planning for the future. And just because it didn’t happen today, doesn’t mean it is off the table. It still has to be done eventually! We need to consider that it isn’t just a first for a gender, it is the first for an entire species.
Update: I was listening to Ad Astra's podcast (from my talk with Newton) and on episode 9 they talked about how the US was worried about their space suit numbers in 2017. Apparently the suits we see now, called EMUs (Extravehicular Mobility Unit) are from the 1980s and incredibly expensive to make. So two years before this spacewalk they determined we might have a supply issue when attempting to complete all the mission lined up to 2024. The reason we aren't producing them is because it is time for an upgrade. They are currently working on the next generation of space suits with more mobility and more features, but still have many years to go. Not only was this an expected problem, we aren't even producing EMUs anymore because they are at end of life.
https://overcast.fm/+IlXQx6vk4 Episode 9 if you want to listen to it.