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NASA’s Cancelled All-Female Spacewalk Is 1 More Example Of Women Facing More Obstacles At Work

Posted: March 28, 2019

While the cancelled spacewalk is not a case of blatant sexism, it does put a spotlight on how organizations must change to become more female-friendly spaces.

It was heartening to hear that an all-female spacewalk would be happening soon. A spacewalk is when an astronaut gets out of a vehicle while in space.

It wasn’t planned, nor was it intentionally scheduled for the last week of Women’s History Month. It was just a coincidence based on which astronauts would be on the station when the “extravehicular activity” (EVA) or spacewalk as it is commonly known, would be performed. But it was still a joyful coincidence.

Which is why it was extremely disappointing that it was cancelled for the simple reason that there were not enough spacesuits available. For a lot of women, it was a reminder of how they have to work harder and overcome more obstacles to get work done or to get opportunities at work. The internet responded with comments like, “if they can put a man on the moon they should be able to put a woman in a spacesuit.” Hillary Clinton too tweeted, saying, “Make another suit.”

It doesn’t help that NASA has a gender problem. While it launched the first man into space in 1961, the first woman, Sally Ride, wasn’t sent until 1983. Things are changing however and astronauts Christina Koch and Anne McClain, who were supposed to do the spacewalk together come from a class that is 50% female.

However, as Brandi Dean and Stephanie Schierholz from NASA’s public affairs office point out, it was more a series of unfortunate events caused by microgravity that caused the problem, rather than outright gender discrimination. Astronaut Anne McClain had trained in both medium and large suits and had thought she would be fine in either. But when she actually got out into space last week she realized that she felt that she was more comfortable and safe in a medium size spacesuit, because her body size had changed in microgravity. Astronaut Koch too uses a medium, and while they did have an extra medium size, it would take significantly more time to reconfigure it, and they would not be able to perform a spacewalk on Friday. Time on the space station is a precious resource, and so it was easier to just change the astronaut.

This still leaves me with some unanswered questions:

  • Why make a big announcement before checking the equipment?
  • Even assuming that the sizing changes in space, has this ever happened to a man before?
  • They are NASA. The brainiest people in the world work there. They know that sometimes the sizes in space are different from what they are on Earth. So how did they not anticipate this?

NASA has tried to clarify things in this tweet, but the male bias has been pointed out by some commenters.

And some tweeters were actively critical of this ‘all-pervading male bias’ in most occupations, not just NASA.

Meanwhile, astronaut McClain has stood by NASA’s decision, by tweeting, “This decision was based on my recommendation. Leaders must make tough calls, and I am fortunate to work with a team who trusts my judgement. We must never accept a risk that can instead be mitigated. Safety of the crew and execution of the mission come first.”

It is the safety of the astronauts that is paramount and as Emily Lakdawalla, a planetary scientist says, “I’m suuper disappointed about the all-woman spacewalk not happening as scheduled this Friday but I’m also super supportive of astronauts having the authority to say “I would be safer using a different piece of equipment.” An all-woman spacewalk WILL eventually happen.”

Kate Sullivan, the first American woman to walk in space says that this was not the first time an all female space-walk was discussed. Many years ago, NASA considered arranging an all-female spacewalk on purpose, but the idea was shot down by the astronauts themselves, as to them it seemed like a stunt that would only further the tokenization of women in the industry. She says about the cancelled spacewalk that, “what really gives me the greatest satisfaction,” is that it isn’t a stunt, [it’s a] consequence of there being enough women now in the astronaut ranks, now in the flight ranks, now serving as flight directors. That, in the normal course of assignment rotations, you can end up with more than one woman involved in some high-stakes event.”

An all-female spacewalk will happen. We women will just have to wait longer – as always.

Meanwhile, rubbing salt in our wounds is the casual sexism passed off as jokes –“her accessories did not match her spacesuit” or “she could not go out as she did not have anything to wear.”

Whatever the reasons may be for the plan falling through, there are lessons here not only for NASA but for all organizations. Work spaces, protocols, processes and equipment have long been designed keeping men in mind. As more and more women enter these spaces, the need arises for change to accommodate that diversity.

Image source: By NASA – http://spaceflight.nasa.gov/gallery/images/shuttle/sts-116/html/s116e05983.htmlhttp://antwrp.gsfc.nasa.gov/apod/ap061225.html, Public Domain, Link

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Vijayalakshmi Harish is a book blogger and writer. To paraphrase her librarian, she is a

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