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NASA's wardrobe fail: sexism at work?

March 26, 2019

A much hyped "all-female" spacewalk by two American astronauts Christina Koch and Anne McClain has been cancelled because they don't have the right-sized suits. How could NASA afford to be so careless in their planning?

Astronaut Mike Hopkins on a spacewalk at the International Space Station in 2013
Image: Reuters/NASA

It was billed as "historic" — a world exclusive: the first ever "all-female" spacewalk at the International Space Station. And the two lucky gals were American astronauts Anne McClain and Christina Koch.

But they fell, as so many others before them, because of an embarrassing wardrobe malfunction. It wasn't their fault, but it was still almost as revealing as a red-carpet fail.

Koch has a Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering and Physics, and a Master of Science in Electrical Engineering.

McClain is a Lieutenant Colonel in the US Army, with a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical and Aeronautical Engineering, a Master of Science in Aerospace Engineering, and a Master of Science in International Relations.

They are both ambassadors for science and humanity on the whole.

US astronauts Christina Koch (center) Nick Hague (left) Anne McClain (right) preparing for a spacewalk
Not enough to go around: US astronauts Nick Hague (left), Christina Koch (center) and Anne McClain (right) prepare spacesuits at the International Space StationImage: picture-alliance/dpa/NASA

Yet their first joint, extravehicular activity (EVA) was reduced to a media spectacle that put their genders before their jobs — and not only that, but their darned impressive qualifications too.

Read more: China lands Chang'e-4 probe on 'dark' side of moon

Ever heard of an 'all-male' spacewalk?

Granted, it's a delicate balancing trick.

On the one hand, you have to mark — what appears to be — a shift in an administrative culture. Someone, somewhere decided an all-female spacewalk was overdue, would send a signal that space was moving with the times, or whatever. But you've also got to treat the two women, doing the same jobs in space as two men (and hopefully for the same pay), as though it were normal.

Which, clearly, it isn't. Yet.

Otherwise, we wouldn't have witnessed all the recent fuss about an "all-female" spacewalk, like… Wow, they actually trust them to get the job done!

Ask any of the journalists who wrote stories in the run up to the original Koch-McClain spacewalk and I bet none of them had a clue what the two astronauts were actually going to do on their EVA. 

And, now, Koch and McClain can't even go to the ball because they haven't got anything to wear? I mean, have you ever heard of an "all-male" spacewalk getting canned because one of them had the wrong trousers?

Infografik Weltraumspaziergang EN

How could America's space agency, NASA, or the rest of the international community, be so derelict in its duty and planning?

Since the start of the ISS, there have been 214 spacewalks. They have either been all-male or a male-female mix. But never all-female.

So the Koch-McClain spacewalk, originally planned for March 29, 2019, really would have been a first. It even seems that ground control in Canada was to be led by a woman.

Read more: Towards the Moon: Why Europe wants to work with China

How, then, could they have got this so wrong? Was there an unconscious bias at work? Or was it all a social media SNAFU?

When Anne McClain and fellow American astronaut, Nick Hague, went on an EVA on March 22 to replace some old batteries, there was no such hullabaloo.

A modular fashion

The extravehicular mobility unit (EMU) worn by astronauts is modular. It is built from lower to upper torso, arm-by-arm, glove-by-glove, helmet and a display and control module… and, of course, an adult-sized diaper.

It has 14 layers of protection against radiation, the cold and that big ol' vacuum called space.

Check out our multimedia presentation to read more on how spacesuits work.

A spacesuit closet
Spacesuits are modular and should fit all types of training astronaut body sizeImage: Edgar Martins

Basically, a spacesuit is armor — there's no fiddling around with duct tape to seal off any gaps.

So when NASA spokesperson Brandi Dean told reporters that they didn't have the right equipment for the planned all-female spacewalk, it was serious. It was a call to protect life.

As it happens, it was during McClain's spacewalk with Hague that she realized a medium-sized upper torso fits her better. And "because only one medium-size torso can be made ready by Friday, March 29, Koch will wear it," says Dean.

Koch will now head out on the EVA with Hague in tow.

Still no excuse

NASA's Brandi Dean has also said that the ISS carries two upper parts in each of the three sizes — medium, large and extra large.

And it was only ever going to be two astronauts on Friday's EVA. So, how come there's not enough for both Koch and McClain?

If it's not an unconscious bias that better suits male bodies, then it is, at the very least, an inconsistent portrayal of the facts.

Astronauts Anne McClain and Nick Hague replacing batteries on a spacewalk on March 22, 2019
Astronauts Anne McClain and Nick Hague replacing batteries on a spacewalk on March 22, 2019Image: picture-alliance/dpa/NASA

Other than size, there's no difference between spacesuits for men and women — at least, that's what a NASA spokesperson told DW's Anna Sacco last week. However, Dean says "sizing needs may change when [astronauts] are on orbit" due to the effects of microgravity on the body.

Read more: What you can see in space in 2019

"No one training environment can fully simulate performing a spacewalk in microgravity and an individual may find that their sizing preferences change in space," says Dean.  

And that — I'd suggest — was all the more reason for them to have more EMUs at their disposal. Especially when you consider that overall there have been fewer women at the ISS than men, which means fewer women have been studied for the effects of microgravity on their bodies.

Surely, then, you would want a contingency plan for unforeseen events among women — if you were doing your science right.

The International Space Station
The International Space Station: 20 years old and countingImage: picture alliance/Photoshot

So there's really no excuse. Unless, of course, it is just an excuse to cover for something else.

Pit stops in space

All this takes on an added sense of urgency in view of the news that the Russian space agency, Roscosmos, is considering the ISS as a pit stop for voyages travelling deeper into space.

Roscosmos director general, Dmitry Rogozin, says it will be impossible to travel farther into space without such stations along the way.

With his vision in mind, it's said that the Russian segment of the ISS could be adapted with new modules that would allow other nations, such India, to dock there as well.

Not only would the ISS have to cater to a more diverse and inclusive range of astronauts from various countries and cultures, but it would also have to make sure there was enough to go around.

DW Zulfikar Abbany
Zulfikar Abbany Senior editor fascinated by space, AI and the mind, and how science touches people