All-woman spacewalk on ISS cancelled due to lack of fitting spacesuits

26 Mar 2019

Anne McClain in the Soyuz MS-11 spacecraft ahead of her journey to the ISS. Image: NASA/Victor Zelentsov

NASA’s big moment to showcase diversity in space was cancelled after astronauts on board the ISS realised they didn’t have enough well-fitted spacesuits.

This coming Friday (29 March) was set to be a historic day, when NASA astronauts Christina Koch and Anne McClain would venture outside of the confines of the International Space Station (ISS) and become the first all-woman crew to conduct a spacewalk.

On 22 March, McClain and fellow astronaut Nick Hague undertook the first in a planned series of extravehicular activities (EVAs) to install powerful lithium-ion batteries for one pair of the station’s solar arrays.

Both McClain and Koch were preparing for their moment in history, 35 years after Soviet cosmonaut Svetlana Savitskaya became the first woman to conduct a spacewalk. However, NASA brought those looking forward to a piece of space history back down to Earth by cancelling the planned mission.

In a statement, NASA said that the pair could not take part in an EVA at the same time due in part to problems with “spacesuit availability” on the station. Rather than it meaning there are not enough spacesuits on board the ISS, NASA said that McClain discovered following her first spacewalk that a “medium-size hard upper torso – essentially the ‘shirt’ of the spacesuit – fits her best”.

While there are two medium-size hard upper torsos on board, only one that would suit both McClain and Koch will be ready for use on 29 March. This means that McClain will now likely perform her second spacewalk on 8 April with Canadian Space Agency astronaut David Saint-Jacques.

Earlier this month, McClain tweeted that she was being fitted for her spacesuit on board the ISS due to the fact she had grown 2in in zero gravity compared with her height on Earth.

The numbers of women who have ventured out into the vacuum of space remains significantly lower when compared with their male colleagues. Since Savitskaya’s EVA in 1984, only 13 women – including McClain’s recent excursion – have performed a spacewalk, despite more than 200 having occurred on the ISS since 1998.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic