“In space, no one can hear you scream” was the tagline for the film Alien, and I suspect that the truth of that saying was tested recently, when NASA cancelled a planned spacewalk by the two female astronauts—Anne McClain and Christina Koch—currently on the International Space Station.
It would have been the first time that two women had conducted a spacewalk together; in the past, spacewalks have either been all male or male-female. However, when it came time for the pair to make history, it was discovered that there was only one appropriately-sized spacesuit on the station that was suitable for a spacewalk, and NASA officials said it would take too long to reconfigure one of the others in time. Rather than postpone the spacewalk, Koch instead made the spacewalk with a male colleague.
March was National Women’s Month, which is why NASA had planned the all-female spacewalk to take place on March 29. It would have been an undoubtedly powerful moment, especially for women and girls in—or looking to enter—the STEM professions (science, technology, engineering, mathematics). Much time, effort, and money has been spent trying to interest more women in these traditionally male-dominated fields, and a spacewalk featuring two women doing the work while their male colleagues waited inside the station would have sent a powerful message. “Yes, girls, you can do anything you want!”
Well, as McClain (as played by Aidy Bryant on last weekend’s Saturday Night Live) deadpanned, it actually shows that girls can do anything they want, just not at the same time. What’s baffling (to me, anyway) is that trips to the ISS, as well as the astronauts’ time on the station itself, are meticulously planned to the nth detail, months before they actually happen, not thrown together at the last minute because everyone is bored (“Hey, I know what we’ll do this weekend; we’ll get a few people together and make a trip to the Space Station! It’ll be fun! Anne, bring your guitar!”).
Considering that everyone knew there would be two women on board (it’s not as if McClain or Koch were subbed in at the last minute: they’re astronauts, not backup goalies), it’s surprising—not to mention disheartening—that no one thought to have someone check the cupboards on the space station and make sure there was suitably-sized equipment available for everyone. You’d think that would be a somewhat important consideration, but apparently not.
“But why didn’t she just wear a man’s large-sized spacesuit and stuff socks in it or something to make it fit?” I hear someone cry. McClain had tried using a man’s size large spacesuit during a previous spacewalk, but decided afterward that a medium would be more suitable. Now, anyone who has ever had to borrow a pair of wrong-sized steel-toed boots to tour a worksite knows how uncomfortable—and even potentially dangerous—this is, and I would imagine that the discomfort and danger of wearing ill-fitting equipment goes up substantially when we’re talking being out in space, not somewhere on terra firma.
“Couldn’t they have postponed the walk until one of the existing medium suits was modified?” I hear someone else ask. I have no idea how long such modifications would take, so perhaps that’s a factor. I do hope, however, that someone on the ISS is busy making those modifications now, so that if the opportunity comes again, one of the women won’t have to stay behind at the last minute while a male colleague takes her place.
That scenario contains its own message, and it’s probably not the one that NASA wants to be sending women and girls in the 21st century. “You’ve come a long way, baby,” said an advertising slogan in the 1970s. But sometimes it seems that no matter how far we’ve come, we take a giant leap backward for every small step forward.