Just before 8 am eastern time on Friday, two American astronauts put on space suits and excited the International Space Station to perform maintenance on the orbiting laboratory. People have been spacewalking since Soviet cosmonaut Alexei Leonov in 1965. Pete Conrad helped to fix the Skylab space station in 1973.
NASA is touting the most recent spacewalk because both astronauts are women. Jessica Meir and Christina Koch went outside to replace a battery charge/discharge unit that failed when new lithium-ion batteries were recently installed on the outside of the ISS. The unit is one of several such devices that regulates the storage of electricity on the batteries from the ISS solar arrays.
NASA is ascribing great significance to the fact that two women went outside the ISS to perform maintenance.
“The first all-woman spacewalk is a milestone worth noting and celebrating as the agency looks forward to putting the first woman and next man on the Moon by 2024 with NASA’s Artemis lunar exploration program. Our achievements inspire students around the world, proving that hard work can lead you to great heights, and all students should be able to see themselves in those achievements.”
NASA hastened to add that it did not undertake an all-woman spacewalk specifically for these reasons.
“The all-woman spacewalk wasn’t something we purposefully planned, though. It was bound to happen eventually because of the increasing number of female astronauts. Koch’s and Meir’s 2013 class of astronaut candidates was 50 percent women.”
Indeed, American woman astronauts have been regular conducting spacewalks since Katheryn Sullivan during a space shuttle mission in 1984. The first woman spacewalker was one of the rare Soviet female cosmonauts, Svetlana Savitskaya, a few months before Sullivan. Meir has had a previous spacewalk on her current ISS mission.
The first all-woman spacewalk was supposed to take place on March 2019, but NASA found out at the last minute that it lacked two spacesuits that would fit the smaller frames of women astronauts. The space agency, which used to have a predominantly male astronaut corps, has been playing catchup to make sure that its female astronauts have the equipment they need, including spacesuits, to perform all the tasks that their male counterparts have.
While astronauts go on spacewalks regularly to perform routine maintenance outside the ISS, spacewalking is anything but routine. The act of maneuvering about in bulky spacesuits, handling tools in microgravity, is physically challenging and, on occasion, dangerous. More than one astronaut has come close to death when their spacesuit malfunctioned.
Astronauts spend many hours practicing how to spacewalk at a facility near the Johnson Spaceflight Center in Houston called the neutral buoyancy tank. The tank is a huge pool of water that contains mockups of ISS modules as well as spacecraft such as the SpaceX Dragon. Astronauts use a version of the spacesuits they use in space to practice doing repairs and other tasks. The neutral buoyancy tank is the closest simulation of microgravity on Earth, despite the drag effects of the water.
While NASA is touting the first all-woman spacewalk as a way to inspire more young people to enter the STEM fields, a not very often mentioned political reason exists to highlight the otherwise routine undertaking. The space agency needs more funding if it is to undertake that Artemis return to the moon mission by 2024.
Most polling shows a gender gap where it comes to support for space exploration, including human missions to the moon and Mars. Fast Company suggests that a political element suggests, not only in highlighting the first all-woman spacewalk but even the very name was given to the return to the moon program.
“The selection of Artemis is no mistake. In Greek mythology, Artemis was the sister of Apollo as well as the goddess of the moon. The name also signals a new focus on the role of women in space exploration.”
NASA materials on Artemis always are careful to state that the first human mission to the moon will consist of “the next man and the first woman” to walk on the lunar surface. (By the way if one wants to elicit a sharp reaction from any woman in aerospace, use the now-obsolete phrase “manned spaceflight.) NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine is careful to always let the phrase pass his lips when he talks about returning to the moon. Thus, the first all-woman spacewalk has a utilitarian, an educational, and a political element to it.