NASA Is Cancelling First All-Female Spacewalk Because Its Spacesuits Are Too Big

NASA / Neil Armstrong

NASA was ready to make history with the first all-female spacewalk, but the plans have unfortunately been put on hold. As reported by NPR, NASA made the decision to replace astronaut Anne McClain with male colleague Nick Hague after McClain discovered that a medium spacesuit fit her better than a large. Only one medium sized suit had been prepared for the upcoming mission.

Despite facing criticism, NASA has defended the decision by emphasizing its dedication to safety.

“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.

McClain detailed her excitement about the upcoming mission in an interview with NPR earlier this month.

“I will probably spend the rest of my life trying to describe it. When you are finally in space and you’re finally looking back at Earth and you realize for the first time in your life there’s nothing standing between you and your dream, it’s just so hard to describe the profound impact of that.”

Over 6,100 people applied to be astronauts for the class of 2013. Only eight were chosen, among them McClain. Of the eight, there are four men and four women. Christina Koch, her partner who is still scheduled to go on the walk, was also a classmate.

Astronauts Nick Hague, Christina Koch, and Alexey Ovchinin
Featured image credit: Bill IngallsGetty Images

It has been reported before that opportunities for women in NASA, long overshadowed by a history that favored men, faced further obstacles by spacesuit sizing; the smallest size is medium. As NPR reported in 2006, this means that a person of smaller build would not be able to fit into a suit. When NASA investigated the issue in 2003, it found this eliminated nearly one-third of its female astronauts.

Many people reacted with disappointment and disbelief after NASA’s announcement, with former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton even weighing in over Twitter.

But NASA insists that “making another suit” is easier than it sounds. In addition to the time and effort to design the suit, it takes millions of dollars to build. NASA developer Lara Kearney likened it to building a “small vehicle,” as NPR reported in 2006. It is particularly important to have a tight fitting suit because any spaces will be filled with air. In a zero-gravity environment, this means that the astronaut will be floating in the suit itself.

There is reason to hope that an all-female spacewalk is on the horizon despite this setback. As 12 of the 38 active astronauts are women, many people, including Schierholz, consider the event an “inevitability.”