The cancellation of the first all-female EVA (extravehicular activity) – due to a change of program due to the non-immediate availability of two medium-sized spacesuits – raised a fuss of comments and sarcasm: the American space agency is able to dress two men for an extravehicular activity, but not two women?
MODULAR PROTECTIONS. The suits for the Apollo astronauts were custom-tailored by the seamstresses and artisans of the International Latex Corporation (the same one that made Playtex bras). But when NASA had to focus on the next phase of space exploration, that of the Space Shuttle program, they opted for a more economical approach. With a space taxi available for trips to the “near” space, it was unthinkable to rely on custom suits. It was then decided to create individual pieces for arms, legs and busts that could be mixed. The extravehicular mobility units (EMU) were produced in five sizes: extra small, small, medium, large, extra-large.
The engineers of the time thought that women could wear the same suits as men, at most in smaller sizes. But they did not take into account the differences in body shape: for the same height and weight, women may have wider hips and narrower shoulders, and if one part of the space suit must cover the hips and shoulders, likely an astronaut have to be settle with compromise.
Peggy Whitson, a NASA astronaut who holds the record for female extravehicular activity knows this well: 10, in 665 days in Space (the American who spent the most time in orbit). “For a woman, taking space walks is more complicated, especially since the suits are larger than the average woman’s size,” he said in an interview.
NARROW WARDROBE. In the 1990s, the reduction of NASA’s budget led to the first reductionin the production of space suits: the extra small was the first size to be eliminated, and shortly afterwards the small one was also. Most physicists were within the M and L: Nasa decided to have focused on those. The consequences of this change began to emerge in 2011, after the end of the Shuttle era: the EVAs were reserved for some astronauts on the spacecraft, instead on the ISS everyone must be able to conduct extravehicular activity.
NICE CV. BUT IT FITS? The size of the astronauts came to influence the possibility of being selected: “Those who applied were to be bigger, to be chosen,” says Bonnie Dunbar, a former NASA astronaut, five times on the Shuttle. A similar situation, but “on the contrary”, had occurred in the 1960s, when the small size of the Apollo capsules required the choice of astronauts no higher than 1,80 m.
Today’s NASA astronauts still use overalls designed 40 years ago. In recent years almost 200 million dollars (177 million euros) have been spent in designing new ones, but uncertainty about future space exploration projects does not help: a suit to go to the moon is different from one to colonize Mars.
SEXISM? NOT TODAY. On the issue of Christina Koch and Anne McClain has had a severe impact the time when astronaut women were rare (NASA premiere, Sally Ride, flew in 1983). Moreover, the body in orbit changes in ways that cannot be perfectly simulated in the training phase: a fact that affects the fit of the space suits and that can force the program to change for safety reasons.