On the morning of October 18, astronauts Christina Koch and Jessica Meir made history by participating in NASA’s first all-female spacewalk. They represent the 14th and 15th women ever to spacewalk since Svetlana Savitskaya in 1984, and they were part of NASA’s 2013 class of eight astronaut trainees — the first to include equal numbers of men and women.
During their eight-hour spacewalk, they successfully made urgent repairs to a failed battery component on the station’s exterior, which was responsible for storing solar power.
While the astronauts received outpourings of praise from the public, Meir emphasized the importance of recognizing the greater historical significance of their mission. "For us, this is really just us doing our jobs," she said. "We were the crew that was tasked with this assignment. At the same time, we do recognize that it is a historic achievement, and we do of course want to give credit to all of those that came before us." Meir also added that she hoped they could be an inspiration to everyone, not just to women.
Anticipation was high after NASA scratched it’s all female lineup for a spacewalk in March due to a lack of appropriately sized space suits. This sparked a public outcry, highlighting the legacy of sexism in the space program and underscoring the challenges faced by women in historically male-dominated fields.
The first spacesuits were originally designed with men in mind. In the 1960s, the International Latex Corporation began making custom spacesuits for each astronaut. This expensive and time consuming process shifted in the 1970s when the company began manufacturing five standard sizes of leg, arm, and torso pieces, which could be interchanged to accommodate varying body sizes.
However, this approach didn’t account for differences in the body shape of men and women, which served as one of the many barriers faced by women admitted to the astronaut program in 1978, and it's still an issue that continues to persist today.
Today’s astronauts wear space suits designed decades ago, even though they were only intended to last 15 years. The high expenses associated with designing and developing new technology are the basis of NASA’s current spacesuit shortage. Pablo de Leon, director of the Spacesuit Laboratory at the University of North Dakota, estimated that building a spacesuit from scratch could cost as much as $250 million and involve 5,000 man-hours of work. Meanwhile, the limitations of their spacesuits continue to be a source of embarrassment for NASA.
However, after 2 years of design work by a team in Houston, a prototype for a new spacesuit for the 2024 Artemis mission has been recently unveiled. NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine says that the new spacesuit, featuring modular components across the chest and waist that can be adjusted, allows the spacesuit to fit all body sizes “from the first percentile of women to the 99th percentile of men.”
This achievement not only represents a critical new technological development, but showcases NASA’s greater effort to remove barriers that historically excluded women and minority groups. Curt Niebur, NASA's program scientist for New Frontiers in Washington D.C., highlights that NASA is working towards increasing diversity in its programs. He says, "The research now shows the best teams are those that take advantage of the diverse skills, knowledge, and viewpoints that are available.”
However, despite this push for greater representation in space programs, women over the past 15 years have made up just 15% of planetary mission science teams, while only making up about 25% of planetary scientists. In addition, Black and Hispanic people make up just 1% of the nation's planetary scientists.
This diversity problem is not unique to the field of planetary science. In many scientific disciplines, even those with substantial female representation—such as biology—there is still a disproportionate number of men in leadership roles. Although the industry is slowly shifting, this imbalance in representation continues to enforce a male-dominated STEM field.
According to a 2013 report by the U.S. Census Bureau, while women represent nearly half of the American workforce, they constitute only 26% of STEM workers. Similarly, Black and Hispanic people account for 6% and 7% of professionals employed in STEM careers, respectively.
This disparity can largely be traced to factors such as a lack of role models and educational support for women and minorities in STEM fields. According to a report by UNESCO, “Cracking the code: Girls’ and women’s education in STEM,” women accounted for just 35% of STEM students at institutions of higher education globally.
As society progressively moves toward a more inclusive workforce, it is important to highlight efforts to eliminate barriers that historically excluded women and racial minorities while also holding institutions accountable for rectifying historic racism and sexism embedded within STEM fields.