We've Sent Nearly 500 Men Into Space—But NASA Can't Get Two Women on a Spacewalk At The Same Time | Opinion

Kathy Sullivan with spacesuit
Kathy Sullivan, the first American woman to perform a spacewalk. NASA

I understand why NASA scrubbed the first all-women spacewalk when one of the astronauts realized she needed a smaller spacesuit, but I'm still frustrated that we can't safely equip two women astronauts at the same time.

Spacesuits for working outside the International Space Station are extremely specialized, extremely expensive equipment. These spacesuits are so pricy that we only manufactured 18 forty years ago, and have been maintaining them far beyond their intended 15-year lifespan. With several lost during space shuttle disasters, only 11 of the spacesuits for extravehicular activity—spacewalking—still exist, and just a handful of those are currently in orbit on the space station while the rest are on Earth for refurbishing. Instead of customizing a spacesuit for each astronaut, it's more like rental shoes at a bowling alley where spacewalkers try to pick the best fit of what's in inventory.

After her first spacewalk, astronaut Anne McClain realized she needed a smaller spacesuit. As the only thing protecting astronauts from cold vacuum and near-instantaneous death, each spacesuit requires detailed inspection and preparation before use. I understand and respect that it's logistically easier to switch astronauts than it is to switch spacesuits, so replacing McClain is a safer choice than scrambling to prep a different spacesuit for her. Safety comes first, especially when working in extreme environments.

But I'm frustrated that in over fifty years of spacewalks, we still aren't seeing just two women outside a space station or spacecraft at the same time.

I'm frustrated spacesuits come in medium, large, and extra-large, making it less likely women astronauts can pick a safely snug spacesuit. I'm frustrated that smaller women astronauts training on Earth are hampered by overly-large spacesuits so they can't reach the control dials or sometimes can't even see out the helmet. I'm frustrated poorly-fitting gear is a factor along with aptitude when it comes to selecting which astronauts will be assigned to spacewalks.

I'm frustrated that of more than 550 people who have been in space, only 63 were women. I'm frustrated that we've never had more than four women in space (and only one spacewalking) at one time, while crews or spacewalks of entirely men are common. I'm frustrated that of the fewer women who get to space in the first place, they're less likely than the men to be selected for spacewalks. As I wrote for New Scientist, I'm frustrated that more men named variations of Michael have spacewalked than women.

I'm frustrated that the same problems I have here on Earth with finding appropriately-sized safety gear during fieldwork is just as much of a problem in space. I'm frustrated that so many of my women colleagues have to bring their own survival suits for doing work in the northern ocean if they don't want to risk freezing from hypothermia if catastrophe strikes. I'm frustrated women fieldworkers share tips of the few vendors that carry steel-toed boots small enough to fit our feet, and how often we need to special order without ever trying them on because stores don't carry any in inventory.

I'm frustrated how many companies meet their legal obligation to provide safety gear with a closet of loaner large, extra-large, and extra-extra large gear, yet stare blankly when asked about a small. Im frustrated so much safety equipment comes in "unisex" and women's sizes as though that isn't inherently contradictory. I'm frustrated that along with a pink tax, women often pay a safety tax by needing to provide their own gear, and that the gear is often so much more expensive.

I'm frustrated that so much energy is spent recruiting girls into science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields, yet it's so hard for adult women to be safely equipped to do their jobs. I'm frustrated that I feel like I'm lying to children when I tell little girls they can grow up to be astronauts. I'm frustrated that when budget limits the range of spacesuit sizes, the Powers That Be decided that extra-large was more important than small. I'm frustrated that competency being thwarted by poorly-fitting gear isn't a problem confined to those of us working here on Earth, but also to the women who hold the iconic dream-job of astronaut.

I'm frustrated that it took fifty years to get a random assignment of two women astronauts to a spacewalk at the same time, and it got scrubbed for something as as arbitrary as the physical size of the astronauts. I'm frustrated that I was excited that we'd finally hit such a basic landmark in equality only to need to fight my disappointment when it was canceled for those astronauts' safety. I'm frustrated that I don't know how long it's going to be before we have another chance to see two women spacewalking at the same time.

I get it. I get all of it.

But I'm frustrated.

Mika McKinnon is a field geophysicist, disaster researcher, and science communicator in Vancouver, Canada. Find more of her work on Twitter as @MikaMcKinnon

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.