NASA’s “all female spacewalk”? One step forward, Two steps back…

Graphic of an astronaut holding a flag.

For weeks, NASA has been hyping the first “all-female spacewalk.” For those of you who are not familiar, a spacewalk is any time an astronaut leaves the space station to repair satellites, test new equipment, conduct experiments, address any issues with the spacecraft or perform any other extravehicular activity while in space.

March 31st was supposed to be a historic day for women in science and space exploration. For the first time, two female astronauts, Christina Koch, and Anne McClain, would be heading outside the International Space Station (ISS) together.  Unfortunately, this will not be happening. Why? The suits available were not configured to fit two women at the same time. As a result, male astronaut Nick Hague will be taking McClain’s place.

What happened?

Both Koch and McClain needed medium sized space-suits to safely conduct the space-walk. According to the BBC, NASA does have two medium size upper torsos on the ISS, but only one suit has been appropriately configured for a spacewalk.

McClain did train with both a large and a medium space suit but ultimately decided that a medium suit was more appropriate for her size and would thus better ensure her safety. In the end, it was agreed that the women would have to partake in separate spacewalks. McClain will perform her spacewalk on April 8th with Hague, the same male astronaut.

Even though the decision made by NASA was not intentionally sexist, the fact that the second medium suit had not been configured to fit a woman’s size highlights the challenges faced by women in traditionally male-dominated environments.

McClain had a decision to make: she would either have to use a piece of equipment designed for a man, putting herself at risk, or miss out altogether. For obvious reasons, both McClain and NASA opted for the latter. However, it is disappointing to see how in spite of so much talk, the reality is that women are still far behind in terms of opportunity.

It is not enough to only advertise the “first-female spacewalk” for PR reasons when the reality is that the institution itself is not adapting inclusively. It is true that historically space exploration has been a field dominated by men. Talking about this is not enough — the equipment needs to be available to women. Systemic sexism needs to be addressed at an institutional level.

I hope this serves as a wakeup call to NASA. I hope they see this embarrassing situation as enough motivation to make every opportunity available to their female astronauts. We need less talk and more action!