66. Why Space Suits Don't Fit Women
The highlight of any shuttle mission is the spacewalk: glamorous, dangerous, and oh so photogenic. But of the nearly 100 U.S. astronauts who have stepped into the void, only six have been women.
It isn't a question of having the right stuff. One problem is that space suits weren't designed for women. The present-day suit, designed by NASA in the 1970s, was meant to be sensible, flexible, durable, and big. The suits are reusable, and thus designed with arm and leg segments of various lengths that are attached to hard fiberglass torsos. The sizes of the torsos begin at medium and range up to extra large. While that sizing works for 90 percent of men, it will fit only the tallest 60 percent of women.
Fixing this turns out to be complicated and expensive. "As you get smaller and smaller, you run out of real estate on the torsos to put the arm and leg openings," says Allen Flynt, head of NASA's Extravehicular Activity Projects Office. A $16 million suit redesign was mothballed in March during budget cutbacks. Flynt says seven active astronauts are too small to fit into the medium-size suits. No one knows how many more women would join the astronaut corps if NASA had suits that fitted.
— Jeffrey Winters