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NASA decision to nix all-female spacewalk sparks gender barrier debate

The setback in space boils down to one thing: a wardrobe malfunction.
Image: Christina Koch  Anne McClain
Christina Koch assists spacewalker Anne McClain. NASA

It was supposed to be one giant leap for womankind.

U.S. astronauts Anne McClain and Christina Koch were scheduled make the first all-female spacewalk on Friday. Unfortunately, NASA discovered a little too late that the women both needed a medium-size spacesuit. Since only one medium suit will be ready in time for the spacewalk, astronaut Nick Hague will take McClain’s spot.

This decision has been met with a less than stellar response and has sparked a debate over existing gender barriers for women who work in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.

“Make another suit,” tweeted former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

“The female experience: we’re limited by a system we didn’t design,” tweeted The Wing CEO Audrey Gelman.

“The root of the problem is this: the NASA spacesuits are old, and were not made with women in mind,” wrote Abigail Bealle in The Independent.

The decision comes as America is trying to attract more women and girls to STEM.

Today, women make up 47 percent of the workforce, but only 28 percent of the science and engineering workforce, according to a report called The State of Girls and Women in STEM.

Female astronauts also tend to agree. Astronaut Peggy Whitson said in an interview, “As a woman, doing space walks is more challenging mostly because the suits are sized bigger than the average female.” She would know—Whitson holds the record for most space walks by a female astronaut. And astronaut Bonnie Dunbar told NPR back in 2003: “I do not want to turn to a young girl who has all the talent in the world, becomes an extraordinary engineer, but isn't the right size, to tell her, ‘I’m sorry but our nation can't build a suit for you.’”

Of the 18 original space suits created in the 1970s, 11 are still used today. The small-size suits were discontinued in the 1990s for technical reasons, automatically placing women (who are typically smaller than their male counterparts) at a disadvantage. NASA has been aware of the issue for decades, but creating a smaller suit hasn’t been a priority, according to critics.

Martha Ackman, author of “The Mercury 13: The True Story of Thirteen Women and the Dream of Space Flight,” told Know Your Value that the spacewalk controversy is just a continuation of an old problem: “Female fighter pilots didn’t get hired in the 1940s because of the lack of availability of women’s bathrooms. They were told there would be no place to change their clothes.” She continued, “We shouldn’t keep repeating the same mistake. We know the right answer. We just don’t always like the right answer.”

NASA, however, is defending its decision to scrap the event, which was supposed to cap Women’s History Month. "It’s safer & faster to change spacewalker assignments than reconfigure spacesuits,” the agency tweeted.

Dr. Ryan L. Kobrick, a professor Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University’s spaceflight operations program agreed. “The amazing and difficult thing about [selecting candidates] is that there are a lot of good people out there, so NASA can be purposefully diverse.” He added, “This is not about gender … It's about a lack of available spacesuit parts.”