It was close to being the first giant leap for womankind but is now a very public stumble for one of the world's leading space agencies.
NASA announced on Monday that the first all-female spacewalk in history would be cancelled due to a somewhat confounding mistake from the same agency that sent human beings to the moon; they didn’t have a spacesuit in the right size.
Anne McClain and Christina Koch were scheduled to walk together in space on Friday to change the batteries on some of the International Space Station’s (ISS) solar panels. What would have been a triumphant end to Women’s History Month came to an abrupt halt after realization that both astronauts would require medium-size torso components, in which the ISS only has one.
NASA astronaut Christina Koch (centre) with fellow astronauts Nick Hague (left) and Anne McClain (right) in their US spacesuits (Image courtesy of NASA)
The mission will still go underway; however male astronaut Nick Hague will replace McClain.
"... 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," a NASA statement said.
"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.”
There has been a strong online reaction to the news, shifting a harsh spotlight onto the unsuspecting agency.
Immediate responses were seen on all social media networks with many seeing the change as another frustrating strike against progress for women participating in space missions. NASA sent their first female astronaut on a mission over three decades ago.
The agency even saw a response from politician Hillary Clinton, whose solution was to tweet “Make another suit” and whilst it might look good online, making another suit is no easy task and has been a sensitive issue with NASA before.
A 2017 inspector general report highlighted the need for new spacesuits as the ISS currently only houses eleven suits, all designed over forty years ago. The startling number was also followed up by the report further stating that NASA is still “years away” from having a new space suit ready for future deep-space missions. The 20 million dollar price tag on each suit doesn’t help the cause either.
Whilst it is disappointing that this major milestone for women in space won’t be reached this week, it’s more an important topic of safety rather than sexism.
"This decision was based on my recommendation," McClain tweeted yesterday (March 27). "Leaders must make tough calls, and I am fortunate to work with a team who trusts my judgement.”
We must never accept a risk that can instead be mitigated. Safety of the crew and execution of the mission come first."