The All-Female Spacewalk That Wasn't
How it all fell apart at the last minute — and how these astronauts are making history anyway.
They’re about 240 miles above our heads, orbiting in a 925,000-pound spacecraft — and they were poised to make history. On March 29, NASA astronauts Anne McClain and Christina Koch were scheduled to venture outside of the International Space Station (ISS) to conduct the first all-female spacewalk.
But now, it appears that won’t be happening.
Originally slated to take place back in the fall of 2018, the new timing of this momentous walk during Women’s History Month was a happy accident brought about by scheduling issues. Spacewalks are performed to conduct station maintenance, such as installing new components, monitoring onsite scientific experiments, or updating equipment. NASA reps said that timing — and the fact that it was to be the first spacewalk with women exclusively — was not intentional.
And then, it was canceled. After a successful spacewalk on March 22 by McClain and male astronaut Nick Hague, it seemed like all systems were go for the upcoming all-female walk on Friday. Flight director Mary Lawrence and lead spacewalk officer Jacklyn Kagey, as well as Canadian Space Agency flight controller Kristen Facciol, were on-hand to support the astronauts from the ground, rounding out the women’s team. Then, on March 25, NASA released a statement saying it had updated the second spacewalk assignment, partly because of a lack of space suits available on the station.
“This change was made in consultation with the crew onboard the International Space Station and based on lessons learned from the first spacewalk,” Brandi Dean, public affairs specialist at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, tells InStyle. “It is, in part, due to the preferred spacesuit sizing of the various astronauts, and the availability of spacesuit sizes on the space station.” She explains that there’s currently only one medium-size hard upper torso (basically the shirt portion of the spacesuit) in readily usable condition on the ISS. Both women who were to conduct the walk this week would need one of these.
The road that leads to liftoff is a grueling one, no matter your gender. Spacewalks, in particular, are physically demanding and often one of the most dangerous tasks an astronaut can perform. “Working in, and to some degree, fighting against a pressurized spacesuit is a significant part of the challenge,” Dean says. “An optimally fitted spacesuit improves an astronaut’s ability to accomplish the tasks.”
Although McClain has trained in both medium and large torsos, she reportedly felt that the medium was a better fit for her in space (sizing needs can change in orbit, in response to how living in microgravity affects the body). Thus, she’ll have the share the suit with Koch, who will wear the medium torso on March 29. McClain will wear it during the third spacewalk, scheduled for April 8. While there are two medium suits on board, reps have stated it’s more efficient to swap spacewalkers than to reconfigure the elements of the spacesuit.
During these spacewalks (also called extravehicular activities or “EVAs”), astronauts will be upgrading the station’s power system, replacing nickel-hydrogen batteries with new, more powerful lithium-ion batteries to power the station — tasks projected to take six to seven hours to complete. Fewer than 220 of these walks have occurred since the ISS launched into orbit in 1998. McClain is the 13th woman spacewalker in history, and Koch will soon become the 14th.
While history won’t be made this week, these two women have already achieved unprecedented milestones at NASA. Back in 2013, they were members of the first astronaut class made up of 50 percent women. They were among the four women selected (eight were chosen out of around 6,100 applicants) after a year-and-a-half application process and rigorous testing. Depending on how long they stay with the organization, they may even be among the first crew to go to Mars, a nine-month-long voyage 25 million miles away.
Women make up only 11 percent of those who have gone to space. It took 20 years for NASA to officially hire its first female astronauts — its initial selection process required candidates to have graduated from military jet pilot testing programs, which didn’t allow women. The U.S. has sent the most women into space, though the percentage of men to women sits at a meager 14 percent — only seven other countries have sent a woman into orbit at all.
Despite the long path ahead of reaching gender parity at NASA, the numbers of women who pursue degrees and jobs in STEM fields continues to grow. Data from the Society of Women Engineers shows that, between 2011 and 2016, there was a whopping 54 percent increase in bachelor’s degrees awarded in engineering and computer science to women (with 5.6 percent awarded to women of color). And according to the National Science Foundation, women comprised 28 percent of all workers in science and engineering occupations in 2010, up from 5 percent from 1993.
The future looks bright for women in space, regardless of the setbacks. Just four years after the record-breaking class of 50 percent women, five of the 11 members of the 2017 astronaut candidate class still in training are women as well. “NASA looks forward to being able to celebrate the first all-female spacewalk, and other firsts for females in the future,” Dean adds. “With the increase in the percentage of women who have become astronauts, compared to men, it is inevitable that women will continue to break new ground.”