It is a starry-eyed achievement almost literally. Christina Koch and Jessica Meir, two NASA astronauts, have crafted space history by embarking on what they call the first all-female space walk. Tasked with replacing a failed power control unit, their performance has been decidedly spectacular as they floated feet-first out of the International Space Station’s (ISS) Quest airlock on Friday.
The spacewalk, known as an extra-vehicular activity (EVA) in the jargon of astronauts, took place seven months after the originally scheduled date for an “all-female outing”, which had to be dropped because the ISS had only one medium-sized spacesuit on board.
The agency sent up a second medium spacesuit in October. From space to ground zero, the happiest thought at the moment must be that both the achievement and empowerment of women are now manifest in the rarified atmosphere of space.
Very appropriately has the significance of the spacewalk been summed up by Christina ~ “I think it’s important because of the historical nature of what we’re doing,” she said ahead of the spacewalk.
“In the past, women haven’t always been at the table. It’s wonderful to be contributing to the space programme at a time when all contributions are being accepted, when everyone has a role. That can lead in turn to increased chance for success.”
On closer reflection, more than the space-walk, it is the assignment that is historic ~ to fix a failed power control unit. Previously, 14 women and 213 men had carried out spacewalks. The first woman was the Russian cosmonaut Svetlana Savitskaya, who went outside the USSR’s Salyut 7 space station in 1984.
Video footage from the astronauts’ helmet cameras, as they dangled 260 miles above Earth, provided a live stream of the painstaking operation to carry the new hardware, install it and then return the faulty battery to the airlock for a postmortem back on Earth into why it failed. Their work in space will, therefore, be followed up by the labs on Earth.
Exceptional must be the projected coordination between space science and pure science as the world knows it. At 40, Christina is due to remain on the ISS until February, bringing her total time in space to 328 days, the longest single spaceflight by a woman and just short of Scott Kelly’s 340-day record. Researchers are collecting extensive biomedical data on the impact of spaceflight on her system.
The majority of data available is on male astronauts, but there is some evidence that there are sex differences in response to a space environment. One study found that women are more likely than men to suffer faintness as a result of “orthostatic hypotension”, a cardiovascular issue. Men appear more prone to vision changes caused by spaceflight associated neuro-ocular syndrome (Sans). A flight to space has a lot to bear on human health. The contretemps notwithstanding, NASA has reached a milestone.