The Science Behind The Spacesuits To Be Worn On NASA’s First All-Woman Spacewalk

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Today Christina Koch and Jessica Meir will make history as they conduct NASA’s first all-woman spacewalk. From its inception, the field of space science has been saturated by men. The 2016 movie Hidden Figures was based on the true story of how women working on the Apollo missions, and in particular women of color, were poorly treated within NASA’s own walls. NASA has worked hard to address these problems of imbalance in gender, ethnicity, and other under-representation for some time now, though Friday’s milestone is not a mere tokenistic stunt engineered to garner positive media attention. Astronauts really are the cream of the crop when it comes to talent.

While they often possess post-nominals longer than their own names, these people are not only academically brilliant. They are selected for their skills in keeping cool under pressure, listening, working as a team, and maintaining resilience on what can be long and isolating missions lasting many weeks and months, floating in a tin can around the Earth. The leaky pipeline is a term used to describe the progressive loss of more women in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) as you move up the ranks.

Given that many astronauts have a research background, it is testament to NASA’s work in scaffolding a more inclusive culture that the 2013 cohort of trainee astronauts that produced both Koch and Meir had a 50/50 balance of men and women. As such, given the higher number of women astronauts available, an all-woman team was bound to be selected soon enough. It is however 35 years since the first female astronaut took part in a spacewalk.

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Koch and Meir will be working to replace a power controller that failed to respond after some new Li-ion batteries were added in a previous spacewalk, though it is not the repair itself that has people interested in this particular spacewalk. The astronauts originally scheduled to carry out repairs to the International Space Station (ISS) on 29th March 2019 were Koch and another woman astronaut, Anne McClain, which would have made theirs the first all-woman spacewalk. Unfortunately McClain had to swap out in favor of astronaut Nick Hague as there was not a large enough size selection of extra-vehicular mobility units (EMU), or outdoor space onesies, in the required sizes for both women to participate.

Depending on the requirements of the EMU, the design, materials selection, and on-board tech will vary. Just earlier this week, NASA unveiled a more svelte look in their Artemis program which will send the first woman to the Moon. The EMUs being used in these spacewalks are pretty bulky owing to the conditions they need to maintain for the astronaut. What does it matter if a spacesuit is a little big though? Well, as it turns out, quite a lot.