History was scheduled to be made on Friday March 29 when NASA intended to launch the first all-female spacewalk outside the International Space Station. This milestone mission, however, did not come to fruition based on a simple oversight: the size of the spacesuits.
Although it may not seem like a major deal, NASA’s mistake is reminiscent of an issue that has been plaguing society forever—the cis white male body is considered neutral and everyone else is a deviation from that normalcy. In order to reach true gender equality, organizations from NASA to Nordstrom must recognize and accommodate the wide range of different human body types.
Anne McClain and Christina Koch, the two women scheduled for the spacewalk, would both require spacesuits with medium-sized torsos. Although two exist at the International Space Station, only one was properly prepared to be worn in space, according to NPR.
Rather than spend the money, time and effort to prep the second medium suit, NASA decided to re-staff and removed McClain from spacewalk in favor of Nick Hague who fit a larger suit, according to NPR.
It’d be easy to say it’s not the end of the world. Both women have done spacewalks, they just haven’t done it together. “We’re sort of getting to the point of inevitability,” NASA spokesperson Stephanie Schierholz said of an all-female spacewalk, according to The New York Times.
But this is a serious issue and should be treated as such. This oversight took an opportunity away from a woman in a society where women still have to work incredibly hard to make it in professional atmospheres.
This isn’t the first time NASA has snubbed deserving women from going to space due to their body shapes either. In 2006, NPR reported that “opportunities for women may have been hampered by the fact that spacesuits only came in medium, large and extra-large sizes.”
Therefore, smaller-built bodies could not complete a spacewalk. When NASA looked into the issue, the agency found that nearly a third of the female astronauts could not fit into the existing suits, according to NPR.
This is more than just a department store only catering to a specific idealized body type, which, of course, is harmful in its own right. By overlooking the size clothing of their employees, NASA is affecting the careers and livelihoods of its employees.
In 2013, McClain and Koch graduated and trained together. Out of the eight people in that class, half were women, which was a first for NASA, according to The New York Times. In addition, out of 38 current active astronauts with the agency, 12 are women.
If NASA continues to champion itself as an organization supporting equal opportunities for all genders, they need to begin by designing and equipping spacesuits for all different body types.
Lara Kearney, a technician on the spacesuits, defends NASA, claiming that the lack of properly prepared equipment has nothing to do with gender.
“Do we spend around $15 million to accommodate, relatively speaking, a few more people than we could today? Or, do we take that money and turn it towards the suit development for the next generation?” Kearney told NPR.
What Kearney fails to recognize is that, unless something goes horribly wrong, women and smaller-bodied people will exist in the next generation and they will still need properly sized equipment.
If NASA disregards the garbage societal notion that the average body type is that of a cis white male and just looks at the variety of people in the real world, this wouldn’t be an issue. There would then be enough prepped equipment for both McClain and Koch to complete the first all-female spacewalk.
Hopefully, this incident has opened eyes at the agency, along with the rest of the world. Despite championing equality, we still have a lot of work to do.