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The Giant Leap for Womankind that Had to Wait

On March 29, 2019, the 215th International Space Station (ISS) spacewalk took place. It was supposed to mark a significant first in the history of spaceflight: the first all-women spacewalk. However, news broke on March 25 that the roster had been changed because the two astronauts, Christina Koch and Anne McClain, wore the same size spacesuit torso, and there were not two operational size medium torsos on the ISS.[1] Thus, this spacewalk can only be labeled as the 215th ISS spacewalk, not a giant leap for womankind. That would have to wait.


A number of headlines about the fiasco sounded incredulous, in total disbelief that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) could make such a seemingly simple oversight. I too was shocked for an entirely different reason. Just three months before, as I was finishing my first semester of college, I turned in a paper about the complex history of the relationship between gender and spacesuits. The news about not having two operational spacesuits to fit these women did not surprise me, but I did not expect my paper to be so timely. From my research, I knew that this was not a foolish error but an unintended consequence of a long history of decisions about who should go to space and what bodies spacesuits needed to be designed to protect.


Even before space travel became a reality, the role of an astronaut was very heavily associated with masculinity. The astronaut could be seen as an extension of the brave American pioneer, who sought to explore and ultimately control environments once thought to be out of reach, a historically masculine image.[2] Additionally, within the Cold War context from which spaceflight emerged, space was thought of as a new potential theater for war, connecting the role of an astronaut with the military, another historically masculine endeavor.[3] The American astronaut was to be many things, but above all, he would be male.


This connection became explicitly codified during the Mercury Seven selection, the first seven men chosen to be astronauts in the United States, in 1959. These individuals were selected from a pool of applicants based on a series of physical tests, psychological tests, and input from a committee. A prerequisite to applying was being a military test pilot, a role that was restricted to men at the time, automatically ensuring an all-male astronaut corps. Moreover, among the applicants, a premium was placed on the masculine traits embodied in the cultural image of the astronaut. As the head of the evaluation committee said, "We looked for real men."[4]


Not everyone subscribed to this vision of who could be an astronaut, though. Starting in 1960, Doctor William Randolph Lovelace, a subcontractor who helped to run the tests used to select the Mercury Seven, began to explore the possibility of sending women to space. He thought it would be more efficient to use women because they tend to be lighter, which reduces the fuel needed for the rocket and require less oxygen and food for their smaller bodies. He found a group of women who met or exceeded the Mercury Seven's performance on the physical and psychological tests and had significant piloting experience, named the First Lady Astronaut Trainees, or FLATs.[5]


We can argue about whether or not the tests astronaut candidates were put through were genuinely reflective of the skills required to be an astronaut or just what was needed to fit the masculine American hero's image. However, that conversation is immaterial in this case. Regardless, these women met the predetermined criteria established for astronauts and had similar flying experiences compared to the male trainees. Nevertheless, their training was unsupported by NASA, and the program was canceled.[6] This demonstrates that the deciding criteria for becoming an astronaut were not perceived physical capacity, psychological capability, or experience; it was gender.


An all-male astronaut team led to the development of spacesuits designed solely for the male body, which set both the default body and astronaut as male. Designing spacesuits with men as the imagined user resulted in some features that prohibited them from being truly suited for women. I want to emphasize that I do not intend to take a deterministic biological approach to gender; rather, I aim to demonstrate how the gendered nature of the role of astronaut led to designing spacesuits only for bodies that fit that image, resulting in suits that were not made to accommodate all bodies.


The first spacesuits were custom-tailored to individual astronauts, but to save time and money, the spacesuits created for the Space Shuttle were composed of several interchangeable parts with standardized sizes. These sizes were created based on measurements taken from men and simply scaled down to create smaller sizes, making them poorly proportioned for most women's bodies. Additionally, NASA also scrapped plans to create extra small and small parts for the sake of budget, further limiting who could fit into the suits.[7] This is not to mention other finer details of the design, which considered other aspects of physiology, such as the cooling and ventilation garment. Although some thermoregulation processes, on average, vary between men and women, these garments were designed to accommodate the "ideal man."[8]


The spacesuits used today are the same ones developed for the Space Shuttle during the 1970s. Despite the lack of consideration of women in the initial creation of these suits, the United States has now sent 50 women into space, but only 14 have done spacewalks, which is the aspect of space travel that requires a spacesuit. NASA selects which astronauts will go on spacewalks based on who fits into the suits available, meaning the decisions made decades ago about what bodies spacesuits would accommodate continue to have consequences today.[9] The cancellation of what would have been the first all-women spacewalk shows how the impacts of the gendered history surrounding the spacesuit are still being felt.


On October 18, 2019, Christina Koch and Jessica Meir completed the first all-women spacewalk in history. When reflecting on the significance of this milestone, Koch said, “In the past women haven’t always been at the table. It’s wonderful to be contributing to the space program at a time when all contributions are being accepted, when everyone has a role.”[10] As we have seen, though, it is not enough to say that all people can now have a seat at the table without addressing the historical factors that have prevented people from being at the table. We must confront the culture of exclusion in the space program's history with intentionality to combat the consequences these past decisions have on our ability to be inclusive today.



References [1] Brian Dunbar, “Friday's All-Woman Spacewalk: The Basics,” NASA, October 17, 2019, https://www.nasa.gov/feature/fridays-all-woman-spacewalk-the-basics. [2] Dario Llinares, The Astronaut: Cultural Mythology and Idealised Masculinity (Newcastle-upon-Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publisher, 2011), 54. [3] Llinares, The Astronaut, 34. [4] Loyd S. Swenson, James M. Grimwood, and Charles C. Alexander, This New Ocean: A History of Project Mercury (Washington, DC: NASA, 1966), 160-165, quote on 163. [5] Swapna Krishna, “The Mercury 13: The Women Who Could Have Been NASA’s First Female Astronauts,” Space.com, July 24, 2020, https://www.space.com/mercury-13.html. [6] Margaret Weitekamp, “Lovelace’s Women in Space Program,” NASA, accessed March 26, 2021, https://history.nasa.gov/flats.html. [7] Marina Koren, “The Original Sin of NASA Spacesuits,” The Atlantic, March 27, 2019, https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2019/03/nasa-spacesuit-women-spacewalk/585805/. [8] Jessica Bennet and Mary Robinette Kowal, “Why NASA’s First All-Women Spacewalk Made History,” New York Times, October 18, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/18/science/all-female-spacewalk-nasa.html. [9] Eva Botkin-Kowacki, “NASA’s Spacesuits Have a Gender Problem. These Women are Fixing It.” Christian Science Monitor, July 20, 2020, https://www.csmonitor.com/Science/2020/0720/NASA-s-spacesuits-have-a- gender-problem.-These-women-are-fixing-it. [10] Dunbar, “Friday's All-Woman Spacewalk.”

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