It has been a tumultuous week this week for NASA as far as news goes. The space agency’s Administrator Jim Bridenstine has just announced that ‘President Donald Trump has asked NASA to accelerate US plans to return to the Moon and to land humans on the surface again by 2024.’ Wonderful! But as exciting news as it may be, it is not new news that NASA has reinvigorated its plans to return to the Moon.
Why this statement now? Could it be that earlier this week NASA also made another announcement – that its first all female space walk, which would have been a fitting end to a month celebrating female achievements in science and technology fields, had been cancelled. What is most unfortunate about the cancellation is the reason; an outfit faux-par which, in a single statement, albeit a well-disguised rhetorical statement, seemingly erased years of the struggles women have strived to overcome in order to be treated as equals.
NASA astronaut Christina Koch who had been scheduled to install powerful lithium-ion batteries for one pair of the station’s solar arrays with fellow astronaut Anne McClain, was unable to perform her duties because there was not enough of the right-sized space suits to go around. Instead her colleague Nick Haugue would take up the mantle and fit the arrays in her place.
NASA’s official statement on the matter reads: “Koch had been scheduled to conduct this spacewalk with astronaut McClain, in what would have been the first all-female spacewalk. However, after consulting with McClain and Hague following the first spacewalk, mission managers decided to adjust the assignments, due in part to spacesuit availability on the station. McClain learned during her first spacewalk that a medium-size hard upper torso – essentially the shirt of the spacesuit – fits her best. Because only one medium-size torso can be made ready by Friday, March 29, Koch will wear it.”
The announcement should not detract from the astounding work that any astronaut performs, either inside the ISS wearing a t-shirt or outside in the vacuum of space, avoiding space debris while being wrapped up in a suit that feels like you’re padded from head to toe in bubble-wrap.
Nor should it turn-back decades in the quest for equality; its just an unfortunate case of terrible misplanning, where two female role-models who could have broken new ground and extended their appeal to young girls around the globe, have had the experience reduced to an oversight in appropriate clothing.
However, following mounting criticism of a cancellation explanation that somewhat unwittingly smacked of sexism, NASA has since responded via Twitter with the following statement; "to clarify, we have more than 1 medium size spacesuit torso aboard, but to stay on schedule with @Space_Station upgrades, it’s safer & faster to change spacewalker assignments than reconfigure spacesuits."
Still, given the significance of the all-female space walk and considering that the agency has been charged with the daunting task of returning to the Moon “with innovative new technologies and systems,” one would have thought that the suit situation would have been looked into before publicising this first-of-its-kind momentous event.