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These Boots Are Not Made For Spacewalking

The gender difference in space comes down to suit size

CK Kimball
September 07 2021

March 29th, 2019 was meant to be a momentous occasion for the federal space agency. Astronauts Christina Koch and Anne McClain were to embark on the first all-female spacewalk outside the International Space Station – an impressive feat considering this is the organization that excluded women from the astronaut corps until 1978 and, at one point, worked themselves up over the danger of having a period in space (there isn’t any). Unfortunately, that March all-female spacewalk was canceled (on McClain’s recommendation), only to be successfully completed 7 months later by Koch and astronaut Jessica Meir. So, what went wrong that Anne McClain couldn’t be a part of this sky-breaking spacewalk?

The answer: A wardrobe miscalculation. Specifically, it was the wrong size suit top for Anne McClain.

It’s a seemingly simple oversight for probably the only federal government agency with as strong a fanbase as Kpop. On the other hand, it was an oversight inspired by a male-dominated history that highlights an overlooked issue that began in sexism and continues to affect the future of spaceflight and eventually space colonies.

The differences in men and women in regards to living in space has been studied for decades. In the beginning, the parameters of becoming an astronaut automatically excluded women as they mimicked the requirements of joining the military which, surprise, also excluded women. However, in current studies, while the data does point to some disparity between the sexes, such as more women tend to be unsteady after landing, while more men have visual issues, the gender-based biological differences so far have not been significant enough to write home about.

Samantha Cristoforetti ISS: NASA

It’s that, when it comes to space walks, size does matter. Back in the early days of manned space flights, space suits were designed to the individual. But like fashion on earth, it became more practical to develop suits to general size, dubbed EMUs or Extravehicular Mobility Units. And they cost millions of dollars to create which, over time, has led NASA to cutting sizes to cut costs. Usually the smaller sizes. And a lot of women need the smaller sizes.

Christina Koch doing a spacewalk: NASA

This was “fine” for a spell, during the space shuttle era where an astronaut wearing an off-size could still participate in missions just not take the walk. But the start of ISS brought on the requirement of space walks for repairs and such. And by then NASA had slashed smaller sizes. And, again, a lot of women are of a smaller size. And an EMU can cost millions of dollars. Whoops.

Because, as stated, there aren’t enough gender-based biological differences between men and women in space. So, the choice to slash smaller sizes, because there weren’t as many women in the program, (as though that doesn’t also effect the population of small men,) is not a choice that can happen for a successful human colony in space. In the case of Anne McClain, she didn’t need a small or extra small or junior space suit. She trained in a large and they were short a medium. That’s the kind of future planning that killed Kmart and it’s the type of future planning that could kill our space colony.



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