By Melanie Fine
NASA has announced that the first all-female spacewalk will take place — finally — early morning October 18, 2019, conducted by astronauts Jessica Meir and Christina Koch.
This milestone was scheduled to take place earlier this year in March, anticipated enthusiastically by those who have too often seen women marginalized in scientific pursuits. To the disappointment of many, however, the spacewalk was ultimately canceled due to the lack of appropriately sized spacesuits. Twitter erupted unsurprisingly as the rug was figuratively pulled out from under 3.8 billion women worldwide.
One Twitter user replied, “If we can land people on the moon, surely we can find a solution to this quandary,” while Hillary Clinton tweeted, “Make another suit.”
It wasn’t that easy, as it turns out.
NASA’s Stephanie Schierholz explained to me that the spacesuits onboard the International Space Station (ISS) “take into account more than 80 different body measurements. The suit has three sizes of upper torso, eight sizes of adjustable elbows, over 65 sizes of gloves, two sizes of adjustable waists, five sizes of adjustable knees and a vast array of padding options for almost every part of the body.”
Not all of these are configured at any one time. Unfortunately for the rollout of the earlier all-female spacewalk, both medium sizes were needed, whereas only one was ready for use. Anne McClain, who had trained on the ground in both the medium and large space suits, determined on her previous spacewalk that the medium fit her better. And, whereas we on the ground can endure squeezing into a pair of pants that seemed to fit us better the previous week, fit, for astronauts, saves lives.
Being easier to replace the astronaut than replace the suit, the historic all-female spacewalk would have to wait.
But it certainly brings to the forefront not only the issue of gender inequality in the space program but its technological stagnation. The suits on the ISS were designed 40 years ago, far outlasting their 15-year shelf life. Rather than designing new suits to fit a new generation of astronauts, new astronauts are selected (among other arguably more important criteria) by whether they can fit in the 40-year-old suits.
It definitely isn’t the first time that astronauts have been selected based on fit. When it comes to space travel, smaller has always been better. The early Apollo 11 astronauts had to be no taller than five feet eleven inches to fit in the small, cramped space capsules. Further, the cost of a rocket launch, measured in thousands of dollars per pound, can be reduced by launching smaller, lighter astronauts.
Whereas the Apollo 11 suits were custom-fitted, the newer generation of ISS suits, to accommodate the multitude of astronauts visiting the space station, were designed to be mix-and-match. Arms, legs and torso pieces were designed in sizes small, medium, large and extra-large. Because of budget cuts, the small and extra-large sizes were scrapped, compelling astronauts to fit in the remaining sizes.
There are actually two types of space suits, one for inside the space vehicle, called an intra-vehicular activity suit or IVA, which is simply a pressurized suit, and one for outside, which is required for a spacewalk, known as an extravehicular mobility unit or EMU. The EMU must fit appropriately to protect an astronaut from the vicissitudes of outer space.
For one, the EMU is designed to withstand the extreme temperature and pressure conditions in space. When the ISS faces the sun, external temperatures can reach 250 degrees Fahrenheit, and when the planet Earth blocks the sun, temperatures can plummet to negative 250 degrees Fahrenheit. The suit is insulated with layers of fabric and covered with outer reflective layers to reflect the sunlight and cools itself with a battery-powered mini-pump that circulates cold water through a network of tubes.
When out on a spacewalk, astronauts are still not fully protected from extreme temperatures. And, as the ISS orbits around the earth once every 90 minutes, the astronauts see the sun rise and set every 45 minutes. “The heat is easier to deal with than the cold. The astronauts can sometimes find shade around the space station,” writes Rachel Becker of National Geographic.
The spacesuit must similarly correct for extremes in pressure. The atmosphere outside of the ISS is basically a vacuum, so the suit has to be pressurized to simulate earth’s atmospheric pressure.
Some learned the hard way.
Early altitude record-breakers who ascended above 10,000 feet in hot-air or gas balloons would pass out from the lack of oxygen. As these travelers broke 43,000 feet, they found it difficult to expel carbon dioxide out of their lungs. “Imagine blowing a five-inch plug of water out of your snorkel in the swimming pool each time you exhaled, and doing that for a couple of hours or more,” wrote retired U.S. Air Force Colonel Donn A. Byrnes in his book Blackbird Rising – Birth of an Aviation Legend.
The famed aviator Wiley Post is credited with designing the first pressure suit in 1932 in collaboration with the B.F. Goodrich company. Basically, his rubber suit was “a tire in the shape of man,” according to Nicholas De Monchaux, author of Spacesuit: Fashioning Apollo.
The inflated suit greatly restricted Post’s mobility, an occupational hazard still experienced by astronauts today. Just two years later, Post and his famed passenger Will Rogers would be killed in a plane crash after the plane’s engine suddenly stopped working.
In addition to maintaining an appropriate pressure, the spacesuit also pumps in pure oxygen, rather than the 21% oxygen present at sea-level, and uses lithium hydroxide canisters to remove carbon dioxide.
Because of the presence of highly combustible pure oxygen, these suits are nearly impossible to clean. When an astronaut dons an EMU, she is pretty much wearing the same unwashed 40-year-old suit dozens of other astronauts have sweated in before her.
The fact that there weren’t enough space suits for two women really had nothing directly to do with gender, but against a historical backdrop that often precluded or denigrated women in science, rubbed salt in a everpresent wound.
Ironically, space suits, including the original suits worn by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin during the first moonwalk, were designed by the International Latex Corporation, aka the woman’s bra manufacturer Playtex. The flawless handiwork of Playtex seamstresses beat out all the competing male engineers in winning the prized NASA contract.
Playtex should know a thing or two about designing clothing to fit women. In the 1960s, however, clothing women was the last thing on NASA’s mind.
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton often speaks of her dashed teenage hopes of becoming a female astronaut. In a March 20, 2012 speech celebrating Amelia Earhart, she said:
“I wanted to be an astronaut. So when I was about 13, I wrote to NASA and asked what I needed to do to try to be an astronaut. And of course, there weren’t any women astronauts, and NASA wrote me back and said there would not be any women astronauts. And I was just crestfallen.”
57 years later, NASA’s astronaut classes are roughly 50% female, which means that eventually, two women would venture out of the ISS together. Astronauts Jessica Meir and Christina Koch are slated to do that tomorrow, outfitted in the very same spacesuits designed ironically appropriately by a women’s clothing manufacturer.
Meir and Koch will replace the battery charge/discharge unit, or BCDU, outside the ISS, 254 miles above the earth, hurtling through space at 4.76 miles per second, in complete silence, propelling and gripping themselves along in the absence of gravity, all the while looking out over our living blue earth.
In the silence and vastness of outer space in the early hours of a Friday morning before most of us wake up, this milestone may be missed by many. But it will indeed be one giant and irrevocable leap for womankind. And its gravity will be felt the world over.