Getting more women into space is essential if we're ever to run longer missions or even set up colonies off-planet. To do so we need a better understanding of how human bodies will cope in outer space
IN MARCH, the International Space Station was set to strike a blow for gender parity. NASA astronauts Anne McClain and Christina Koch were scheduled to perform the station’s first all-women spacewalk, a mere 20 years and 214 spacewalks after the first pair of men stepped off the ISS into the starry darkness.
In the end, the long-anticipated spacewalk didn’t take place for an entirely trivial reason: the only spacesuit available for McClain to wear was a large, and she was a medium.
The history of space travel is full of such incidents. An industry predominantly designed for and tested by men, it has always struggled to understand and accommodate the different needs of women. In the early years of space travel, one group of researchers said women were advised not to operate any complicated machines while on their period. When the US’s first female astronaut, Sally Ride, was going on a seven-day stay in space, she was offered 100 tampons along with a make-up bag. Even today, space radiation shields designed for women struggle to fit the female body.
There have recently been signs that things are getting better. Space agencies are accepting more women onto their astronaut training programmes, and are starting to learn from the experiences of those who have already visited space. The first all-women spacewalks are coming.