Imagine if the first all-women spacewalk had to be cancelled because of an outfit? Well, technically that is exactly what happened in 2019 when one of the two astronauts scheduled to take part in this historical event had to be replaced by a male colleague because there was no space suit available in her size.
When, due to increased space travel in the 1970s, it became too expensive to custom-make spacesuits for each individual astronaut, NASA decided to develop a mix-and-match logic for spacesuits. Pieces for arms, legs, and torsos each came in five different sizes, with the idea that by combining them, the pieces could fit any space traveller. However, as with seatbelts, safety shoes and many other technologies, the false assumption that the male body is a good blueprint for design was adopted.
Even for the same height and weight, female-assigned bodies have on average both wider hips and narrower shoulders than male-assigned bodies. This means that suits designed for male bodies will have to compromise the fit in the shoulder or hip area for female bodies. In the 1990s NASA saw the need for further budget cuts, limiting their stock of suits, where size extra small was the first to go, and small to follow soon after. Eventually, they were forced to judge prospective astronauts not only by their qualifications and experience but by their size, too.
The 2019 embarrassment has accelerated the perceived need for spacesuit design for diverse crew members. In addition to size customization, lessons regarding male- and female-assigned people’s body temperatures and sweating patterns have been incorporated into the systems regulating the temperature in spacesuits. The next-generation suits have been created for the Artemis programme, aiming to land the first woman on the moon by 2024.
NASA has actively emphasised the need for diverse space travel teams. Groups diverse in gender, race, ethnicity, culture and more are known to be able to see problems from different angles and consequently come up with better solutions. In 2014, NASA provided guidelines on how to help foster an understanding of transgender issues in the workplace. This guide included notes to managers and the general workforce on how to achieve a welcoming and supportive environment for NASA employees undergoing transition.
Yet, research on how space travel affects intersex and transgender people is still missing. Existing information on the different effects space travel has on female and male assigned bodies, shows that negative effects of space travel can vary between the two. In order for space travel to be an activity safe to undertake for all people, more knowledge about sex and gender differences in space is crucial.