The Venus Flytrap: The Spacewalk That Wasn’t

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Every March 8, International Working Women’s Day, institutions and companies around the world participate in activities that celebrate women. While many fail, making it a day about rose-and-chocolate distribution and even gobsmackingly regressive events like beauty contests, some do hit the mark and do something meaningful. Even if it’s just for a day, it still feels powerful to see all-women plane crews, media coverage on gender issues, announcements of long-term equalising strategies and the like. Those that consult their calendars a little too late but want to jump on the bandwagon sometimes aim for Women’s History Month instead. It’s hard to know for sure, but it seems a bit like that’s what happened at NASA. The US space agency announced at the start of the month that the first ever all-women spacewalk, supported by an all-women team on Earth, was to take place on March 29. Only they must have come up with the idea quite soon before that announcement, because they’ve just made another one.

The historic spacewalk won’t happen because, despite some of the most meticulous planning that takes place on this planet or any other, they somehow failed to account for the astronauts’ spacesuit sizing requirements. Given the incredible things that happen to our bodies in space (from growing taller to losing fingernails due to compression), and how carefully these variables are met or made as comfortable as possible, it’s interesting how standard size differences weren’t considered. In the case of something as simple as stocking enough variations more likely to be used by women, who are often smaller, the need simply wasn’t expected to arise.

It gets more awkward. Of the two astronauts selected, Anne McClain and Christina Koch, only one will now be able to execute the spacewalk. Both require a medium size hard upper torso of the spacesuit, and there’s only one available at the International Space Station. Koch will wear the spacesuit for what will now be a routine spacewalk. It’s obviously just an embarrassing lapse of attention on NASA’s part, but it still causes a twinge. Because unfortunately, here on Earth we’re used to power games where there’s room for only one woman on a team, and women are pitted against each other as competitors even otherwise. Routine, for us.

Somehow, the iconic words that Neil Armstrong, first astronaut to walk on the moon, spoke there come to mind. Actually, it’s the misquote that made history that comes to mind: “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” Armstrong told the press that he had actually said “a man”, but the word wasn’t heard or registered. Millions readily accepted that he said something more abstract and vast, but why? The parody account @manwhohasitall explained English’s internalised sexism best with this Tweet: “I’m not hung up on the term ‘spacewoman’ because I know it refers to both women and men.” Tim, age 44, male spacewoman.

This muddle in NASA’s attempt to score woke points during Women’s History Month shows how in certain ways, some people are definitely still stuck in 1969. If “man” is to “person” as “mankind” is to “humankind”, what’s “woman” then? Well – “token”.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on March 28th 2019. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

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