The NASA Spacesuit Debate Is About More Than Sizing

“It’s not just space, it’s unfortunately a universal problem,” says physician-astronaut Dr. Shawna Pandya.

Ishani Nath
Dr. Shawna Pandya pictured in her space gear looking serious at the camera with a background of stars
Dr. Shawna Pandya (Photo: Cooper and O’Hara photography)

Astronauts Christina Koch and Anne McClain were ready to make history. The two women were set to complete the first all-female spacewalk. It would’ve been, as The Guardian pointed out, “a giant leap for womankind” but at the last minute, took a turn that, to many, felt like a step back.

In a press release earlier this week, NASA revealed that McClain would no longer be suiting up for the historic spacewalk because…wait for it…there wasn’t a workable spacesuit in her size.

“McClain learned during her first spacewalk that a medium-size hard upper torso—essentially the shirt of the spacesuit—fits her best. Because only one medium-size torso can be made ready by Friday, March 29, Koch will wear it,” NASA stated in their press release. NASA spokesperson Brandi Dean further explained to FLARE that at the space station there were two medium, large and extra-large upper torsos provided, and one of the mediums was a spare that just couldn’t be made ready in time for the scheduled spacewalk.

In the absence of a suit that fit, McClain was replaced by a male astronaut—and the dream of an all-female spacewalk was grounded.

Que rage.

Canadian citizen-scientist astronaut candidate Dr. Shawna Pandya wasn’t surprised when she saw the headlines, but after reading more about the situation, believes the right decision was made. “Even though lots of people, as it turns out, were looking forward to the first all-female spacewalk, safety has to supersede that,” she says. McClain has also since tweeted that the decision to remove her from what would have been a history-making spacewalk was based on her recommendation. “We must never accept a risk that can instead be mitigated,” wrote McClain.

But the news has sparked assertions that the glass ceiling extends even into space, where women are attempting to break barriers in this historically male-dominated industry. And while Dr. Pandya understands why McClain couldn’t complete her spacewalk, she says that this story touches on a larger issue.

“It’s not just that women are in male-dominated industries, they’re in male-dominated industries with tools designed for men,” she says.

Hearing about McClain’s experience reminded Dr. Pandya of her training last year in Utah. She was part of a five-person crew, two women and three men, participating in a Mars simulation. They were living in what she describes as “a tin can” and anytime they would leave, they would suit up in simulated spacesuits. “What we found was that the backpacks that housed our simulated life support systems were definitely made for a man,” she says. The bulky packs, which Dr. Pandya says weren’t designed for a woman’s structure, would slip off her shoulders during their treks out into the sprawling red abyss. She remembers commenting to her crew that she wished she had the shoulders of a man—a comment which reflects the burden to fit in and adapt that many women in aeronautics and beyond deal with.

“This is a universal problem, and I’m glad it’s getting attention because of the magnitude of the audience that the spacewalk reached, but it’s something we need to start thinking about in our everyday design as well,” says Dr. Pandya, referencing examples like crash test dummies, which were only recently diversified to be modelled after both men and women. Similarly, in 2018, Canadian mountaineer Illina Frankiv spoke to FLARE about climbing Mount Everest in a suit made for men because summit suits for women don’t exist. And in 2017, Sudbury entrepreneur Alicia Woods shared how going into the family business of mining made her realize that there was no workwear tailored for women.

“You want to feel comfortable in your workwear, like you’re part of the industry and up until now, even for myself, I was putting on my father’s workwear,” said Woods, who went on to address this gap by launching her brand Covergalls, in 2017. “Is that a sign of an industry that’s welcoming of women?”

Dr. Pandya, who is also a physician, has also had similar experiences beyond her astronaut training. For instance, the surgical tools she uses were originally designed for men, and as a result, she’s had to devise her own techniques for using them with her smaller hands. “You learn to adapt the angles of your hand and how you hold your tool to get that similar leverage in those angles,” she says.

Whether it’s surgical tools, coveralls or spacesuits, Dr. Pandya says these issues are about more than fit or function, it’s about an additional barrier for women trying to gain equal footing in male-dominated industries. “We have to pay close attention to the fact that women are succeeding in worlds that weren’t made for them,” she says, adding that the way forward is to reexamine design as it pertains to gender in all industries.

The stats are changing. The most recent class of NASA astronauts, which Koch and McClain were both part of, was 50% female. When Canada introduced two new astronauts in 2017, one was a woman—making 29-year-old Jenni Sidey-Gibbons the third woman to ever be recruited to Canada’s astronaut program.

“As the percentage of women who have become astronauts increases, it is inevitable that we will eventually celebrate the first spacewalk performed by two women, along with many other firsts for women,” says NASA spokesperson Dean, who notes that they do not make assignments based on gender.

For Dr. Pandya, she hopes that stories like McClain’s help us look beyond this spacesuit and see the larger picture of how industries and equipment have been developed to only suit the needs of half the population. Eventually, there will be an all-female spacewalk, as well as many other historic firsts, “and we don’t want this to be an issue again,” she says.

After all, having the appropriate tools to do your job done shouldn’t feel like you’re reaching for the stars.

Related: 

This Miner Turned Designer Helps Women Fit into Skilled Trades
This Canadian Mountain Climber Had to Summit Mount Everest in Men’s Gear
How I Made It: Shawna Pandya, Physician-Astronaut

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