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Why NASA canceled the first all-female spacewalk

A spacewalk is still scheduled for Friday. Due to a spacesuit sizing issue, a man will go instead of a woman.

Space Shuttle Endeavour Makes Last Trip To ISS Under Command Of Astronaut Mark Kelly NASA via Getty Images
Brian Resnick is Vox’s science and health editor, and is the co-creator of Unexplainable, Vox's podcast about unanswered questions in science. Previously, Brian was a reporter at Vox and at National Journal.

If all had gone according to plan, this coming Friday, American astronauts Christina Koch and Anne McClain would don spacesuits, exit the International Space Station, and swap out some batteries on some of the station’s solar panels. Their spacewalk would be led by another woman, Kristen Facciol, a Canadian aerospace engineer back on Earth. It would have been the first-ever all-female spacewalk, unintentionally taking place during Women’s History Month.

But now that historic moment isn’t going to happen — at least, not yet. On Monday, NASA announced that Koch will be replaced by fellow ISS astronaut Nick Hague, due to a spacesuit sizing snafu.

On an earlier spacewalk, McClain discovered that the medium spacesuit top fit her best (she had been wearing a large), and decided that she would need the medium for future spacewalks. A poor-fitting spacesuit means it’s harder to maneuver in space, and harder to complete the technical aspects of the spacewalk. The trouble is there’s only one medium available for the spacewalk on Friday. NASA decided that Koch will wear it, and McClain will sit out the spacewalk.

A NASA spokesperson reported on Twitter that there is another medium spacesuit aboard the ISS, but it can’t be configured in time for the spacewalk on Friday. “Changing the suit would require adding arms and legs segments to the medium-sized torso, which can be a fairly labor-intensive process,” The Verge’s Loren Grush explains (the spacesuits are modular: the legs and arms detach and can be swapped for different sizes, depending on who is wearing it). At this point, it’s just easier to swap the astronaut rather than the suit.

It’s a disappointment for many who were looking forward to the historic moment of an all-female spacewalk. It’s also a bit of a painful echo of NASA’s history of not providing spacesuits that fit women’s bodies. More than 500 humans have been to space, but only around 11 percent of them have been women.

Yet it’s also important for the astronauts to conduct their work in equipment they feel most comfortable in. The spacewalk had been scheduled to last seven hours. You wouldn’t want to work a whole day, doing highly technical and painstaking work, in the dead of space, in something that didn’t make you feel secure.

No all-female spacewalk is currently planned. But McClain is scheduled to make another venture out of the ISS on April 8 with Canadian astronaut David Saint-Jacques.