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NASA Decision Not Suited for Women

1 March 2002 (All day)
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Well suited? Anchored to a robotic arm, astronaut Susan Helms works in orbit during a March 2001 shuttle mission. Only one other woman is scheduled for a space station flight through 2004.

NASA has halted work on a $16 million program to develop a space suit designed for smaller women. The decision, which could make it harder for women to make it into space, comes at a time when only one female astronaut is slated to fly aboard the international space station in the next 3 years. Together, these developments raise concerns among some engineers and researchers that biomedical data gathered aboard the orbiting lab will be skewed toward men.

NASA officials blame budget pressures for the recent decision, saying they can't afford the $9 million needed to complete work on the new, smaller suit and that only a small percentage of women astronauts would be affected. But a recent internal report obtained by Science urged NASA to continue the program, arguing that a smaller suit would benefit some 20% of the astronaut corps--including smaller men.

The current suits fit some 90% of all men but only approximately 60% of all females, who tend to have narrower chests and shorter arm spans, according to Paula Hay, deputy program manager at Hamilton Sundstrand, which builds the suits for NASA. The smaller size would have accommodated up to 95% of women, she adds. Almost one-third of the current corps of nearly 100 mission specialists--astronauts who are not pilots--are women. Because the current suit is often not a good fit, it can hamper some women's maneuverability and make it harder for them to score high marks on qualifying tests for space flights.

The issue goes beyond gender balance, says Judith Swain, chair of the medicine department at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, and a member of the National Research Council's space biology panel. "There's a big advantage in flying smaller people," she notes, because they consume fewer resources and take up less room on the cramped space station.

Critics of the decision say they may seek out receptive members in Congress, who have repeatedly heard NASA officials describe how more data about women's health in space might lead to advances in solving Earth-bound problems such as osteoporosis. NASA officials have left themselves some room to maneuver, however, should the politics get hot. Agency spokesperson James Hartsfield called the decision a "deferral" rather than a cancellation. But with 2.5 more years of work needed to get the small suit ready, any delay decreases opportunities for women.

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