Why NASA announced and then canceled an all-woman spacewalk

When NASA announced that astronauts Anne McClain and Christina Koch would conduct a spacewalk on the International Space Station, the event was invested with a great deal of symbolism. The NASA astronaut corps did not include women, back when “manned spaceflight” was an accurate description and not, as it is now, evidence of archaic, obsolete rhetoric. Women have commanded space shuttle missions, have commanded the ISS, and have done pretty much everything that their male counterparts do currently while in space. 

However, when the space agency announced the all-woman spacewalk, it forgot to check the availability of space suits that would fit the astronauts. Essentially, for McClain and Koch to both work outside the ISS, they would need to have space suits that have medium-sized torso pieces, the upper part of the suit. However, since only one medium-sized upper torso piece could be made available, McClain would be replaced with Nick Hauge, who wears a larger space suit. McClain will be part of a third spacewalk in April along with Canadian astronaut Davis Saint Jacques.

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The sudden change, though it was technically necessary, has caused several awkward questions. The most conspiratorial one is the suggestion that NASA is misogynist and somehow decided to cancel the all-woman spacewalk out of spite. As Ars Technica reported, this suggestion is almost certainly untrue.

For one thing, the problem with spacesuits on the ISS that can be configured for spacewalks is a long-term, ongoing issue. Four out of the 11 that exist are on the space station currently. The space suits are regularly rotated back to Earth for maintenance. NASA has a plan to keep these suits operational throughout the life of the space station program. Even so, some issues have cropped up. A spacesuit mishap that took place in July 2013 almost drowned Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano when it filled with water.

No evidence exists that NASA has been engaging in sexism. The space agency has been quite assiduous in promoting diversity, not only in its astronaut corps, but throughout the organization. Currently, 12 of the NASA's 38 active astronauts are women.

However, NASA does not have an operational small-sized space suit, meaning a third of its female astronauts cannot fit into existing suits, according to NPR. Without access to a $15-million space suit, they cannot conduct a spacewalk.

The space agency’s woman astronauts, dating back to the late Sally Ride, have proven to be role models to help further that goal. Ride, Judy Resnick, who died on the Challenger; Eileen Collins, who was the first woman to command a space shuttle mission; and Peggy Whitson, who commanded the ISS, participated in 10 spacewalks and has accumulated over 665 days in space, have achieved measures of fame to rival any of their male counterparts.

At some point, an all-woman spacewalk will occur, once NASA matches up spacesuit sizes to the available female astronauts. One would expect that soon after the event takes place, it will seem unexceptional.

The current push to return to the moon and go on to Mars will afford women astronauts opportunities to accomplish things that only male space explorers have done before. The last mission to the moon took place in 1972, when only men could fly on space missions for NASA. Vice President Mike PenceMichael (Mike) Richard PenceDemocrats' CNN town halls exposed an extreme agenda Weld: 'We would be much better off with a President Mike Pence' Gabbard: Trump, Pence 'try to hide the truth' of Saudi-inspired terrorist attacks from Christian supporters MORE, when he announced the goal of putting American moon boots on the lunar surface in five years, referred to “the first woman and the next man” to walk on the moon.

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Indeed, in an interview in Science Friday, NASA Administrator Jim BridenstineJames (Jim) Frederick BridenstineThis is not the time to abandon NASA's Space Launch System Can America return to the moon by 2024? Why NASA announced and then canceled an all-woman spacewalk MORE stated, when asked if a woman would be part of the first crew to return to the moon, “The answer is absolutely. In fact, it’s likely to be a woman, the first next person on the Moon. It’s also true that the first person on Mars is likely to be a woman.”

The reason is not, as some have suggested on social media, an excess of political correctness. These first women will be as well qualified as Neil Armstrong was, 50 years ago. But NASA is aware that when Americans venture into deep space for the first time in decades, it must be, at least symbolically, all Americans. Along with the knowledge, riches and political glory expeditions back to the moon and on to Mars will win, this change will be awesome on so many levels.

Mark Whittington is the author of space exploration studies “Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon? as well as “The Moon, Mars and Beyond.”