• Milena Vergara

The First All-Female Spacewalk

The 18th of October 2019 saw a historic moment: the first all-female spacewalk, conducted by NASA astronauts Jessica Meir and Christina Koch outside of  the International Space Station. The spacewalk was successful in its task of replacing a battery and the astronauts even managed to carry out additional tasks on the station, such as doing a general check up to prevent future battery units from failing to activate. NASA astronauts hope that this will be the first of many all-female spacewalks and that this will soon become a norm. 

Apart from being a NASA astronaut, Jessica Meir has earned multiple degrees, including one in psychology and a PhD in Marine Biology. She has coordinated human space life experiments which were performed by astronauts on Space Shuttle and International Space Station missions. She has an extensive education having studied at Brown, and Strasbourg’s International Space University, as well as Harvard Medical School and Scripps Institute of Oceanography.

Christina Koch is an engineer and NASA astronaut with two Bachelor degrees and a Master in Electrical Engineering and Physics. Similarly to how Jessica Meir has been awarded by NASA, Koch has been awarded by John Hopkins. Koch is on her way to making history again as in December she will set a new record for the longest continuous time spent in space by a U.S woman. 

The crew also featured astronaut Stephanie Wilson as the voice of Mission Control for the mission, acting as Capsule Communication during the spacewalk, which started at 7:38am and ended at 14:55pm . Wilson is the second African American woman to go into space after Mae Jemison, and starting 1996, she has been one of the few astronauts selected to fly shuttle missions. 

The spacewalk took place seven months after the original intended date because only one medium sized suit was available; NASA then sent out for another one to be made in October. Koch was the first to exit as it was Meir’s first spacewalk, They were both attached to the exterior of the shuttle using metal carabiners to avoid them from floating off as they dangled 418km over the Earth. Together they successfully replaced the BCDU, a piece of hardware connected to the solar arrays of the space station used to charge the batteries. The BCDU is very large and heavy so it was installed by a Canadarm2 robotic arm. Following being replaced, the failed device was taken back to Earth on a SpaceX Dragon vehicle so that it could be studied. 

During the spacewalk Koch and Meir received a call from the White House in which President Donald Trump congratulated them and said he was ‘‘thrilled to be speaking with two brave American astronauts making history”. However, he did mistake Meir and Koch for being the first ever women on a spacewalk, but he was corrected by one of the astronauts stating that there had been many significant female astronauts in history who have been on spacewalks. In fact it was Koch’s fourth. In 1984 Russian cosmonaut Svetlana Savitskaya was the first woman to ever conduct a spacewalk. Meir stated that they recognise theirs is a historic achievement that they have been in training for for six years, but they would also like to recognize the women who came before them. “We have followed in their footsteps to get where we are today’’, she concluded. 

The reasons why an all-female spacewalk is so significant were explained by Koch, who mentioned how “in the past women haven’t always been at the table” and that there are many who will read this inspiring story and derive motivation from it due to the representation. For other aspiring astronauts or young girls, moments like these prove that women have gained more importance in the workforce, especially in fields traditionally dominated by men. The all-female mission is reshaping the attitude to women in the workplace and will open opportunities for future missions and tasks to feature women. NASA has even announced that a prototype for a medium sized space-suit could be worn by the next crew which includes a woman.

The mission has gained a lot of social media attention as well as other historic astronauts expressing their excitement. Young girls who were inspired sent in pictures of them participating in space related activities. NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine acknowledged the professionalism of Koch and Meir and that he knew they would get the job done. He hopes that this milestone will show the world that space is open to anyone and everyone, and that this needs to be continuously demonstrated. In 2024 NASA hopes to be able to send the first woman to the moon. 

Women working in NASA have been essential throughout many years in eras such as the Space Race, and movies such as ‘

Hidden Figures help understand how far we have come in the industry. So far only 14 women have carried out spacewalks while there have been 213 men - that’s 94% men. Like NASA astronaut Tracy Caldwell said, many are looking forward to events like these becoming more common.

Milena Vergara


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