When It Comes to the Spacewalk, Size Matters This weekend, Sunita Williams is set to become one of the few women to ever walk in space. That's because NASA's million-dollar spacesuits only come in medium, large, and most recently, extra-large.

When It Comes to the Spacewalk, Size Matters

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It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Renee Montagne.

If all goes as planned, astronaut Sunita Williams will open a hatch on the International Space Station tomorrow. She will step out into the vacuum of space, becoming one of the few women to do a space walk. Williams can do this in part because she fits inside NASA's special space-walking suit.

But as NPR's Nell Boyce reports, some female astronauts aren't so lucky.

NELL BOYCE: A few months ago, Sunita Williams said that the reality of her upcoming space walk had just started to sink in.

Ms. SUNITA WILLIAMS (Astronaut): Everybody would love to do a space walk. It's probably the, you know, the most beautiful view of the Earth. But as it's dawned on me pretty recently, it's real serious business.

BOYCE: Serious and dangerous. That's why at NASA, space walking gets respect. The first American woman to walk in space was Kathryn Sullivan.

Ms. KATHRYN SULLIVAN (Astronaut): Slipping outside a spacecraft in your own little body-shaped spacesuit, it is a neat thing to get to do. It is one of the kind of cool, coveted things to do.

BOYCE: But even though over 150 male astronauts have space walked, only seven women have gone outside. Partly it's because NASA didn't fly women in space until 1983. But veteran space walker Mike Fincke says there's another reason.

Mr. MIKE FINCKE (Astronaut): Our spacesuits only come in medium, large and extra large. Anybody who's on the smaller side, especially like the smaller ladies who are astronauts, they will not be able to have a chance to go outside.

BOYCE: This was confirmed by Steve Doering, manager of NASA's space walking office. He says the last time the agency looked at this issue, three years ago, all of the men could fit in the suit. But about a third of the women couldn't.

I asked Sunita Williams if the astronaut corps felt the available sizes were fair.

Ms. WILLIAMS: Hmm. Good question. I think people are - realize that we are stuck with the suits that we have.

BOYCE: Why is NASA, a $16 billion a year agency, stuck with only medium, large and extra large?

The first thing to understand is that a spacesuit is not like a sweatshirt. Lara Kearney developed suits for NASA. She says a suit is like a tiny spaceship.

Ms. LARA KEARNEY (Spacesuit Developer): It's not as big and as glorious and as wonderful as rockets that shoot fire and things like that, but it literally is a small vehicle.

BOYCE: And these tiny spaceships have to fit right. For example, the arms and legs are inflated with air. You can't bend your elbows and knees unless they line up with built-in joints. And if you're too small for the suit, in zero gravity, you'll float around inside.

The Apollo astronauts got custom-fitted suits. But in the 1970s, the vision for the space shuttle was that hundreds of people would go into space. So NASA built a flexible spacesuit system of mix and match parts. It came in small, medium, large and extra large.

In the early 1990s, a technical glitch forced NASA to develop a new suit. And space walking official Steve Doering says that just then, the agency was hit with budget cuts.

Mr. STEVE DOERING (NASA): And one of the things that was eliminated was the small and the extra large size.

BOYCE: The remaining medium and large fit most people, but not astronauts like Nancy Currie. She's 5 feet tall.

Ms. NANCY CURRIE (Astronaut): People my size are in fourth grade, literally. I mean some fourth graders are bigger than me.

BOYCE: Eventually, NASA did build the extra large. And it started on a small, but more budget cuts and the small got killed.

Lara Kearney worked on a small suit. She says its cancellation is a sensitive subject.

Ms. KEARNEY: It's very easy to turn it into a gender issue because the small people tend to be women. It truly, in my opinion, is not about gender.

BOYCE: To her, it's logistics and cost-effectiveness. For example, unlike larger sizes, the small suit had parts that didn't mix and match. So if part of a small suit broke in space, the astronauts couldn't easily replace it.

There's another issue. Even if a small astronaut had a suit, it would be hard to work outside the space station, which got designed when only larger people were suited up.

Things like handholds are far apart. Astronaut Nancy Currie says this was the question.

Ms. CURRIE: Do we spend around $15 million to accommodate, relatively speaking, a few more people than we could today? Or do we take that money and turn it towards the advanced suit development for the next generation?

BOYCE: The shuttle and its suits will retire four years from now. NASA will need all new equipment to head back to the moon. Glenn Lutz heads the effort to plan for moonwalks. He's making a long wish list for the ideal new suit. It should be lightweight, rugged and fit basically everyone.

Mr. GLENN LUTZ (NASA): But eventually we will come to a place in the program where we'll need to make a cost versus capability trade.

BOYCE: One former astronaut who hopes that history won't repeat itself is Bonnie Dunbar.

Ms. BONNIE DUNBAR (Astronaut): I do not want to turn to a young girl who has all the talent in the world, becomes an extraordinary engineer, but isn't the right size, to tell her I'm sorry but our nation can't build a suit for you. It's not the biggest expenditure and it's not an engineering challenge that can't be overcome.

BOYCE: NASA officials say there are important jobs besides space walking, like piloting the shuttle or doing robotics.

Nell Boyce, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: As NASA turns its eye towards the next generation of spacesuits, the Smithsonian Institution is trying to preserve the Apollo-era suit. They're not aging gracefully. You can read about that effort at NPR.org.

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