Spacesuit issues postpone all-female spacewalk

Pictured: Anne McClain (left) and Christina Koch (right) were scheduled to carry out the historic spacewalk on 29th March. Source: NASA/Wikimedia Commons

By Milo Moran

Anne McClain and Christina Koch were going to make history last week with the first ever all-female spacewalk, but history will have to be made another time because McClain’s spacesuit did not fit.

This sounds bad for NASA, but the low gravity in space means that astronauts grow taller. McClain realised during a previous spacewalk that she had changed shape, and told NASA that she would be more comfortable if her suit had a medium torso rather than a large. There are three sizes of spacesuit torso: medium, large and extra-large, and the ISS has two of each. However, only two suits are kept ready at any one time, and it takes 12 hours to replace a suit’s torso. This is why spacewalk crew are scheduled far in advance.

When McClain reported her change of size, NASA decided that the risk of sending her into the vacuum of space in an incorrectly sized suit was too great. Unsurprisingly, it is easier to change the astronaut than the suit, so Nick Hague took her place on the walk.

Digging deeper, we learned that NASA only has 15 space suits. The Moon missions had suits tailored to each astronaut, but in 1981 they developed the current generation with interchangeable parts. These were only designed to last until the 1990s, but the Space Shuttle allowed regular returns to Earth for repairs which extended their lifespan. Due to a lack of funding, covered by Gair Rhydd in March, the shuttle was cancelled in 2004 and these repairs can no longer be made.

NASA has received harsh criticism from people who don’t seem to have bothered to learn the reasons. Hillary Clinton bluntly told NASA to just “make another suit”, apparently unaware of the issues involved and forgetting that she herself has regularly voted against increasing NASA’s budget. NASA’s funding has been systematically cut for over two decades despite spiralling costs. For example, Russia charge NASA $81m per astronaut they send up via Soyuz rockets.

A 13,000 signature petition claims that NASA “wasn’t ready” to make history, when in reality the decision was made on McClain’s own recommendation. Unfortunately, NASA hasn’t rescheduled the Koch-McClain spacewalk. Their record with female astronauts is patchy: the first American woman was sent to space twenty years after the first Russian woman. Perhaps the reaction will hurry NASA up in making the giant leap that should have been made a long time ago.

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