Sundance Times - Continuing the Crook County News Since 1884

This Side of the Pond

Notes from an Uprooted Englishwoman


April 4, 2019

As long-time readers of this column may recall, I view the concept of space travel with appropriately starry eyes. To me, it is among the more vital components of our collective future that we explore those remote horizons and answer the question so many of us ask as we gaze up at the night sky: what’s really out there?

The brave few who have looked down on this planet from above, and the ones who made it possible, are among my most beloved heroes. My reaction to an announcement from NASA last week was directly related to this lifelong love of everything beyond the shield of our atmosphere.

If, like me, you follow the saga of the International Space Station with rapt attention, you will have heard that NASA was planning the first ever all-female space walk. One small step for the ladies on board, one giant leap for womankind.

Unfortunately, it had to be cancelled when the occupants of the space station realized there weren’t enough space suits to go around. To be more accurate, they did have plenty of gear, but it was all designed to fit men.

Perhaps the most depressing element of the story is that there were only two women scheduled to take part in this historic space walk. This means there is just one, lonely space suit hanging on the rail of the space station’s mud room that a woman can scramble into when the situation calls for it.

Not to sound rabidly feminist or anything, but I rather think a space station with a permanent occupancy of six should have enough clothing options to keep everyone cozy should they accidentally knock a hole in the wall during a round of putt-putt. It shouldn’t really matter what shape a person’s hips are if all they want is to be able to breathe while searching for the duct tape.

I suspect it has something to do with the occupants of the station coming from all over the place at random intervals. With a variety of nationalities on board, it wouldn’t surprise me to learn there has been little coordination as far as which gender gets put in the next shuttle.

Meanwhile, as one journalist pointed out, safety equipment is made for men by default. Clothing, harnesses, even latex gloves that will be snug on a female form are both harder to get hold of and more expensive to buy.

Whoever kitted out the space station did so with the unconscious assumption that there would be more male bodies floating its halls than female ones. At the time, this probably fit well with the ratio of male versus female active astronauts.

I’m betting most of the ladies reading this have experienced a similar situation, though probably not involving oxygen seals. In almost every situation where safety equipment is needed, it’s hard to get your hands on anything that fits when you’ve got anything in the way of curves.

It was a light bulb moment for me because it brought to mind a list of my own, similar experiences (though, sadly, none of them have taken place in zero gravity). I recall, for example, learning to climb a rock face while wearing a harness that cut into all the bits of me I’d prefer were treated with care.

I remember serving in St. John’s Ambulance as a teenager: a volunteer first aid service with whom I bumbled around in the back of an ambulance with a box of band aids and the strong desire not to forget how to put someone in the recovery position the moment I needed to know. (Fortunately for everyone involved, I was never asked to deal with anything more serious than a case of sunstroke during an event at a local beach.)

The latex gloves available in that ambulance were intended for bigger hands than my own. Considering this was the tail end of period in which everyone was terrified of HIV, you’d have thought they’d be keen to make sure I didn’t slip right out of the only thing separating me from other people’s bodily fluids.

I also recall a day of fun at the beach during which I struggled my way into a wetsuit that had never before met an actual thigh, and was then handed a set of flippers that didn’t fit. I launched myself into the water, intending to swan gracefully past the spectators on the sand and stun them into believing me a mermaid. I might even have succeeded, had I not kicked one of those flippers right off my feet and sent it sailing end over end into the crowd.

I’ve worn coveralls I couldn’t bend in and safety straps that nearly strangled me, I’ve laughed at my friends peeking out from the rim of a wobbling hard hat and I’ve done it all in the name of getting to experience new adventures. When you’re a woman faced with a rack of men’s space suits, that’s really the only choice you have.

Never mind that safety equipment is only really safe if it fits properly, we must force the pants past our hips now and worry about the consequences later. To solve the scarcity and expense of woman-friendly equipment, I feel there is only one good solution to the problem.

Someone needs to contact Ralph Lauren and Alexander McQueen and ask them to create a range of weird and wonderful outfits to send down next season’s catwalk that include safety gloves, climbing harnesses and, of course, an oxygen-sealed helmet. By the time these quirky new styles trickle down to the fashions sold in the mall, they’ll be cheap enough we can send a whole suitcase of them up to the space station.


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