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Switching NASA spacesuit sizes isn't as easy (or comfortable) as donning an oversized sweater. Here's why

NASA astronaut Anne McLain at the Gagarin  Cosmonaut Training Center in Star City, Russia, in May 2018. - NASA/Elizabeth Weissinger
NASA astronaut Anne McLain at the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center in Star City, Russia, in May 2018. - NASA/Elizabeth Weissinger - Wikimedia

In a disappointing turn of events, NASA announced Monday that it would have to postpone its first-ever female spacewalk to another date — due to a lack in available space suit sizes for its female astronauts.

Earlier this month, it was announced to the glee of many #WomenInStem enthusiasts that astronauts Anne C. McClain and Christina H. Koch would conduct a spacewalk on March 29, supported by an unintentionally put-together all-female crew on Earth. However, in order for them to walk, they both required a medium-sized spacesuit torso component, of which only one was available at the space station.

At first glance, the reason seems incredulously trivial — why can’t the astronauts just wear a size up like the rest of us earthly beings ?

According to the NASA website, "donning"  a spacesuit isn’t as easy as it seems.

Astronauts conducting a spacewalk will generally wear at least two kinds of space suits during their time away from Earth. During launch and landing, they wear an orange spacesuit, known as ‘launch and entry’ spacesuits. In space these suits can only be worn in the shuttle.

For time spent outside, astronauts wear an EMU (extravehicular mobility unit) spacesuit, designed to work as a personal spacecraft for the person inside it. The suit does not come as a whole, but rather as a collection of parts that come in several sizes, to ensure a comfortable fit for each astronaut.

According to a tweet by Stephanie Schierholz who works in NASA communications for spaceflight, McClain had originally trained in both medium and large sizes but after conducting a spacewalk last Friday decided that a medium is a better fit for her. Although there is another medium-sized part on the station itself, EVA suits require extra configuration to properly fit the astronaut wearing them. “In this case, it’s easier (and faster!) to change spacewalkers than reconfigure the spacesuit,” explained Schierholz.

Spacesuit configurations are necessary to account for the different feel on Earth as opposed to existing in vacuum once in space. “Individuals’ sizing needs may change when they are [in] orbit, in response to the changes living in microgravity can bring about in a body,” said Brandi Dean, spokeswoman for the Johnson Space Center in Houston, as quoted by AFP news agency.

On Earth a spacesuit can weigh up 280 pounds on the ground, without the astronaut in it. Yet the microgravity environment in space causes it weigh nothing.

By Devika Desai

Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019

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