Friday was supposed to mark a historic milestone in the history of humans in space: the first all-woman spacewalk. But when NASA announced this week that a man would replace one of the women astronauts because of a problem with the spacesuits, the change provoked an uproar. Hillary Clinton’s response to NASA canceling the first all-woman spacewalk cut directly to the point.
NASA first announced the all-woman spacewalk in early March, but then announced on Monday that astronaut Nick Hague would replace Anne McClain, who had been scheduled to do the spacewalk with her colleague Christina Koch. While McClain had trained with both medium and large spacesuit torso pieces, her experience using the medium torso during her first spacewalk earlier in March made it clear that the medium worked best for her.
"Mission managers decided to adjust the assignments, due in part to spacesuit availability on the station," a NASA statement on the change read. "Because only one medium-size torso can be made ready by Friday, March 29, Koch will wear it."
When Clinton retweeted a Guardian article on Tuesday explaining that NASA had to cancel the spacewalk because of the seemingly-minor issue of suit size, she offered a simple resolution: "Make another suit."
As NASA explained, the issue at hand wasn’t the number of medium suits, but rather the configuration of the available medium suits.
"We’ve seen your tweets about spacesuit availability for Friday’s spacewalk," read a tweet from NASA’s main account on Tuesday. "To clarify, we have more than 1 medium size spacesuit torso aboard, but to stay on schedule with @Space_Station upgrades, it’s safer & faster to change spacewalker assignments than reconfigure spacesuits."
As a spokesperson for NASA explained to The New York Times, the other medium torso available wasn’t set up for use on a spacewalk, and getting it fully configured would have involved hours of additional labor and an additional risk on the part of the International Space Station crew.
“When you have the option of just switching the people, the mission becomes more important than a cool milestone,” NASA spokesperson Stephanie Schierholz told The Times.
In space, of course, resources of all kinds are severely limited — so NASA didn’t think it made sense to take on additional risk for two women to go out together. And as Schierholz told The New York Times, the increasing number of women admitted to each astronaut class means that the possibility of an all-woman spacewalk was "getting to the point of inevitability."
"I’m suuper [sic] 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,’" tweeted Emily Lakdawalla of the nonprofit Planetary Society. "An all-woman spacewalk WILL eventually happen."
In this case, safety was simply more important, and the spacewalk had to go forward as scheduled. Whether or not NASA fixes the problem by making a new suit and bringing it up to the ISS, as Clinton suggested, you probably won’t have to wait too long for the first all-woman spacewalk.
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