- The first all-female spacewalk is scheduled to occur on March 29 outside the International Space Station.
- Astronauts Anne McClain and Christina Koch will work together in spacesuits while female mission controllers on Earth provide support.
- NASA says its historic first “was not orchestrated to be this way” and is a result of scheduling shifts and the changing makeup of its agency.
- The goal of the spacewalk is to upgrade the space station‘s power system with new batteries.
NASA is about to stumble into human spaceflight history with the first-ever all-female spacewalk.
Spacewalks, formally called extravehicular activities or EVAs, are routine yet risky operations. During a spacewalk, a pair of astronauts put on bulky spacesuits, step outside the International Space Station (ISS), and work together in the unforgiving vacuum of space.
On March 29, NASA plans to have two female astronauts – Anne McClain and Christina Hammock Koch – perform a spacewalk to replace some old batteries. Meanwhile, two women on the ground in Mission Control – lead flight director Mary Lawrence and spacewalk flight controller Jackie Kagey – will lead support of the operation and guide the astronauts every step of the way.
There have been more than 210 spacewalks over the space station’s 18-year history, and two female crew members have lived aboard the ISS several times before. But this will be the first all-female, women-led spacewalk operation ever conducted. Plus, this one happens to be scheduled during Women’s History Month.
Kristen Facciol, a female aerospace engineer, astronaut trainer, and mission controller, will also be involved.
“I just found out that I’ll be on console providing support for the FIRST ALL FEMALE SPACEWALK with @AstroAnnimal [McClain] and @Astro_Christina [Koch] and I can not contain my excitement!!!!” Facciol tweeted on March 1, later adding that she hopes “this will be the norm one day.”
For its part, though, NASA suggests it accidentally scheduled this historic first.
“It was not orchestrated to be this way,” Stephanie Schierholz, a NASA representative, said in a statement to Business Insider, noting that this particular spacewalk was originally slated to take place in the fall of 2018. And given the ongoing hiring strategy of NASA, all-female spacewalks may not be rare for long.
Why the first female spacewalk is likely a coincidence
The goal of the upcoming all-female, 6.5-hour mission – along with another spacewalk happening on March 22 – is to replace critical yet ageing batteries outside of the space station.
The ISS has a three-person crew that rotates roughly every six months, and spacewalks require two astronauts to buddy up for safety.
But the spacewalks initially planned to take care of the battery fixes hit multiple delays. First, the launch of the new batteries aboard a Japanese-built cargo ship was pushed back by two weeks. Then the launch of NASA astronaut Nick Hague – who was slated to perform the spacewalks in October – and Roscosmos cosmonaut Alexey Ovchinin failed, forcing the two men to do an emergency landing.
A safety system blasted their Soyuz space capsule off the doomed rocket, then parachuted the crew back to Earth uninjured. Hague and Ovchinin will attempt to launch to the space station again this Thursday, but this time they’re also flying with with NASA astronaut Christina Koch.
That means the three US astronauts who will be on the space station for the rescheduled battery replacement are Hague, Koch, and McClain (who launched on December 3) – one man and two women.
Hague and McClain are slated to perform the first of the two spacewalks on March 22, then Koch and McClain will do the second on March 29 – the all-female outing.
All-women coincidences will be increasingly likely going forward, given the future composition of NASA’s new batches of astronauts and its human spaceflight division.
“All three NASA astronauts who will be on the space station are from the 2013 astronaut class that was 50% women. And the most recent class of flight directors was 50% women,” Schierholz said.
Why NASA needs a battery swap
The space station is powered by four sets of expansive rectangular solar cells. But because the football-field-size laboratory stays afloat by zooming around Earth at 17,500 mph (it circles the planet about once every 90 minutes), it’s in darkness roughly half the time.
To keep the power flowing during orbital night, batteries store up excess solar energy. But those batteries are now more than 12 years old, and not getting any younger.
NASA is in the midst of replacing four sets of 12 batteries – one per set of solar cells. The newer batteries are lithium-ion types store about twice the energy, so six will be swapped in instead of 12. The spacewalks this month will mark the second set of replacements, according to CBS News.
A robotic arm moves the batteries into position for the spacewalks, but the fine coordination of human hands is required to unbolt the old batteries and swap in the new ones. Hague, Koch, and McClain will also attach adaptor plates to enable the reduction from 12 to six batteries.
Training for a spacewalk
Astronauts practice for months and even years ahead of such operations.
“We train for spacewalks in a giant pool that’s called the Neutral Buoyancy Lab. It’s a pool that’s large enough to fill a full-scale mockup of the International Space Station,” Koch said in a NASA video.
Training is so intense because spacewalks, though routine, are very risky. In fact, NASA officials often say that donning a suit and working in the vacuum of space is “one of the most dangerous things we do as a program,” primarily because there is very little to protect an astronaut if anything goes wrong.
Spacewalks can go south for a number of reasons. If an astronaut makes a incorrect move, he or she can poke or cut a spacesuit, allowing air to escape. Micrometeoroid debris – such as pieces of asteroid and comets, or space junk like flecks of paint and bits of metal – also pose a grave threat. Plus, there’s a risk of mechanical problems or failures; during a July 2013 spacewalk, for example, a water leak threatened to drown Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano in his helmet.
Koch and McClain, for their parts, appear more than ready to risk these and other dangers in order to maintain humanity’s ongoing presence in space.
During Koch’s interview to be an astronaut, she said one person on her interview committee was a personal hero: Peggy Whitson, the NASA astronaut who’s spent the most time in space. Koch said Whitson – who has performed 10 spacewalks and seen her share of close calls – asked a memorable question about Koch’s love of rock-climbing.
“She looked at me, and she said, ‘when you rock climb, have you ever been scared?’ And I felt like she was seeing right to my soul when she asked that question,” Koch said. She confirmed that she has indeed been scared.
“That’s when I found that … turning that fear that you might be having into focus is so important,” Koch added.
How to watch the first all-female spacewalk live
NASA TV plans to broadcast Koch and McClain’s spacewalk starting at 6:30 a.m. EDT on March 29. You can watch the operation live at that time using the embedded YouTube player below.
The operation should last nearly seven hours, beginning with Koch and McClain depressurizing an airlock. They will then open the hatch, step outside, make their way to the truss with the batteries, and get to work.
NASA’s broadcast should show live views from cameras on the space station as well those from the astronauts’ helmets. Radio communications between Koch, McClain, and Mission Control at Johnson Space Center in Houston will also be heard.
An all-female spacewalk is not guaranteed, though.
NASA says it will depend on the successful launch of Hague, Koch, and Ovchinin on Thursday. If there are any delays or issues with that launch, NASA would inevitably delay its two upcoming spacewalks once again, which could then change up the crew members who will perform it.
The new crew members – a combination of space station Expeditions 59 and 60 – are scheduled to launch to space from southern Kazakhstan at at 3:14 p.m. EDT on March 14 (12:14 a.m. local time on March 15). About seven hours later, they hope to meet up with McClain, Canadian astronaut David Saint-Jacques, and space station commander Oleg Kononenko, a Russian cosmonaut. NASA TV (above) also plans live-broadcast the launch and docking attempts.
McClain, for her part, has consistently embraced her role as a model for women in science and working mothers – she even included her 4-year-old son in a NASA photo shoot before flying to the ISS.
“I think that my career and perhaps me being on the International Space Station can really show women and girls and everybody that hey, we’re not just sitting at the table, we’re leading the table. And there’s no excuses: You can accomplish whatever you want to,” McClain said during a live broadcast of a phone call to the space station on International Women’s Day. “You just got to throw your hat in the ring. You’ve got to get out there and do it.”
This story has been updated.
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