First all-female spacewalk cancelled due to lack of right-sized suits
History's first all-female spacewalk has been cancelled at the last moment due to a problem with the spacesuits. NASA astronauts Anne McClain and Christina Koch were originally scheduled to work outside the International Space Station (ISS) on March 29 to install new lithium-ion batteries for one of the space lab's solar array's, but the lack of two spacesuits to fit both women at the same time has forced the space agency to swap McClain with fellow astronaut Nick Hague for the job.
If sci-fi epics are anything to go by, spacewalks are simply a matter of tossing on a boiler suit with a couple of air bottles on the back and a goldfish bowl over the head before jumping out the airlock. In fact, it's a frighteningly complex affair that takes many hours to accomplish, and far from having racks of brand-new spacesuits ready to go, the ISS has only a few modular suits that date back to the 1980s and cost US$12 million each.
The curious thing about the all-female spacewalk's cancellation isn't that it happened, but that spacewalk cancellations don't happen much more often. The Extravehicular Mobility Unit (EMU), to give the suit its official name, isn't so much a garment as a miniature humanoid spacecraft complete with life support systems and even a propulsion system for emergencies. To make matters even more complicated, using an EMU takes as much preparation and as much caution as deep-sea mixed gas diving.
Since astronauts, for some strange reason, insist on coming in a variety of sizes, NASA keeps down the number of suits needed by making the EMU modular. That is, it's possible to swap out the legs, torso, and other bits in various sizes to get the right fit.
According to NASA, the problem with the March 29 spacewalk is that McClain had originally been fitted for a different sized torso unit, but when she went on her first spacewalk, she found that the medium-sized torso fit her best. This was unfortunate because Koch also needed a medium torso unit, but only one could be readied in time for the scheduled spacewalk on Friday.
The space agency says that there is another medium torso on the station, but that it was safer to simply swap around the duty roster for the walks rather than rushing the other torso into service.