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How The First All-Female Spacewalk Could Be Foiled By A Spacesuit


What was billed as the first all-female spacewalk will not happen as planned on Friday. NASA says it doesn't have enough space suits in the right size ready for both women to maneuver safely and comfortably outside the International Space Station. NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce is here to explain how this highly anticipated walk could be foiled by a space suit. Welcome.


CHANG: All right. So I don't get this. NASA has been touting this historic all-woman spacewalk for a while now. How can it not have the right size suit?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: So on Earth, astronaut Anne McClain trained in both a large and a medium hard torso spacesuit. But in space, she decided she liked medium best. That's what she wore for her first spacewalk last week. The trouble is her female colleague up there, Christina Koch, also wears a medium. And the station does not have two mediums that are ready to go. Only one of them has been prepped and maintained. And so NASA decided that a male colleague who can wear the large that's available will go spacewalking on Friday instead of McClain.

CHANG: Why can't they just prep another medium-sized suit?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Well, the thing about spacesuits is the word suit makes you think that it's like clothing.

CHANG: Like on a hanger - grab that one out of the closet.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Exactly. It's not like that at all. It's like a human-shaped spaceship. And if you think about it that way, you can understand that there's all kinds of life support systems. I mean, this thing is all that stands between you and certain death in the vacuum of space.

CHANG: You got to get it right.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: And so it cannot be just sort of thrown on. It's got to be carefully prepared, and it's not going to happen for her before Friday. But she will get another chance in April, although that will not be an all-female spacewalk, either.

CHANG: I mean, this is really too bad because not that many women have gone spacewalking ever, right?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Yeah. So NASA said that last week when Anne McClain went, she was the 13th woman to go spacewalking. And that compares to, like, 200 men. And part of it is just because American women didn't fly in space until the early 1980s, but also, you know, NASA's just had fewer women in the Astronaut Corps. Then again, the suits have been an issue.

CHANG: What do you mean? How?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: So the available sizes are medium, large and extra-large. And way back when, NASA was working on a small size. And eventually, they killed it for budgetary reasons, and this disproportionately affected women because women tended to be the ones on the smaller side. In fact, when NASA did an analysis of this in 2003, they found that none of the men were limited by spacesuits, but a third of the women had no chance of ever spacewalking, simply because they did not fit into a suit.


GREENFIELDBOYCE: And you can imagine that some women were kind of annoyed about this because spacewalking is one of the most prestigious things you can do as an astronaut. Now, I asked NASA about this today. I said, are there any astronauts that would be unable to spacewalk because they don't have a suit? And they said, all of the active astronauts do fit into the existing sizes. That said, if they're not prepped and ready to go, you know, they're not going to be able to spacewalk. So at least this astronaut will get another chance next month.

CHANG: That's NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce. Thanks, Nell.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Nell Greenfieldboyce is a NPR science correspondent.