Just weeks after confirming its first all-female spacewalk, NASA is aborting its mission.
The agency announced Monday that one-half of the two-woman crew will have to back out of the mission due to a lack of appropriate “spacesuit availability,” NPR reports.
The historic spacewalk, originally scheduled for Friday, was to be staffed by astronauts Anne McClain and Christina Koch, and guided flight controller Kristen Facciol. But, after performing her first spacewalk from the International Space Station (ISS) last week in a large-sized spacesuit, McClain realized she needed a medium-sized suit.
Unfortunately, the ISS has just two medium suits on board, only one of which is space-ready. And, as the suits require extensive preparation to be exposed to space, NASA opted to swap McClain out, NPR reports.
Spacewalks are a challenge, but the right equipment makes the job easier! Spacesuits are the most important gear. To get the best fit, we've updated the assignments for our March 29 and April 8 spacewalks outside the @Space_Station. Get more details: https://t.co/AoXmgVqKkJpic.twitter.com/xrCKdMgFXr— NASA (@NASA) March 25, 2019
“Anne trained in ‘M’ and ‘L’ and thought she could use a large but decided after [last] Friday’s spacewalk a medium fits better,” Stephanie Schierholz, a NASA spokeswoman, tweeted in response to criticism of the change on Monday.
“In this case, it’s easier (and faster!) to change space-walkers than reconfigure the spacesuit,” she added.
Despite training in both these sizes, “no one training environment can fully simulate performing a spacewalk in microgravity,” so an astronaut might discover their suit does not allow them to move optimally once out in space, Schierholz explained to the Washington Post in an email.
McClain became the 13th woman to complete a spacewalk last week, and Koch will become the 14th this week, the Guardian reports.
This isn’t the first time NASA has had issues with its suit sizes. According to NPR, after redesigning its suits due to a technical glitch in the 1990s, the agency cut its smallest suit size. It now only has medium, large, and extra-large suits, which poses a problem for many female astronauts. About one-third of NASA’s female astronauts could not fit into its existing suits in 2003, NPR reported.
Koch and McClain were scheduled to install batteries on the ISS’ solar arrays, but McClain will now trade places with fellow astronaut Nick Hague and the spacewalk will continue as planned. McClain’s next walk is scheduled for April 8, though no new all-female walk has been scheduled.
While this wasn’t the “one small step” for women many had hoped it would be, Schierholz told the Washington Post that NASA believes “an all-female spacewalk is inevitable."