NASA hit a milestone on Friday, October 10, 2019 as two female astronauts embarked on a first all-female spacewalk. Tasked with replacing a failed power control unit, the two female astronauts, Ms. Christina Koch and Dr. Jessica Meir, floated feet-first out of the International Space Station’s Quest airlock without male counterparts for the first time.
It was a seven hours and 17 minutes’ walk in space which included a brief call with President Trump. Initially scheduled to be seven months earlier, the planned all-female spacewalk was halted due to unavailability of medium size spacesuit for the female astronauts. However accidentally it happened, it successfully got done last Friday and NASA was acclaimed widely for the symbolic empowerment of women in the astronomy world. NASA explains this was bound to happen due to increasing numbers of female astronauts, and as they celebrated this achievement, they shared their ambitious goal to first put women and then man on the moon, and plan ahead to Mars.
In a video that was released, we could see Ms. Koch coming out of the hatch followed by Dr. Meir carrying a tool bag. Both of them remained attached to handrails on the exterior of the ISS with harnesses and pairs of metal carabineers. These are used to ensure that the astronauts cannot float into the space.
The two astronauts, Dr. Meir and Ms. Koch were both part of NASA’s 203 class of eight astronaut trainees, which was the first batch to include equal numbers of men and women. Out of 38 active astronauts, currently there are 12 female astronauts in NASA’s ranks. Dr. Meir from Caribou, Maine, holds a master’s degree from International Space University in France. She completed her doctorate in marine biology from Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego. Her major works include research for human physiology for Lockheed Martin and her work as an aquanaut in underwater habitat.
Ms. Koch, originally from Michigan grew up in Jacksonville N.C. She holds a master’s degree in electrical engineering from North Carolina State University and has previously worked for space science instrument development remote scientific field engineering for NASA and the United States Antarctic Program, among other institutions. Ms. Koch is also on a mission to break the record for the longest single spaceflight by a woman, with an expected 328 days by the end of February as per the schedule. Her mission, if successful, would provide an insight on the effects of long-term spaceflight on a woman’s body. It is high time that there are data and research about the effects of spaceflight on female physiology.
There are some known differences in male and female body while in space. Men and women have different sweat patterns, men sweat more than women and sweat occurs in different parts of the body. Astronauts therefore wear cooling and ventilation garment to maintain their body temperature at a safe level, but that was designed only for male bodies. Other vital differences researched highlights the differences in vision problem that men face during spacewalk but have not yet been observed in women. Another difference is that that women are more likely than men to experience faintness as a result of “orthostatic hypotension” as per one study conducted (Sans).
Going back to the history of women in space, women were not admitted into astronaut program until 1978.The first spacewalk with a woman took place in 1983, Sally Ride became the first American woman to perform it. Of more than 560 people who have been in space around the world, only 65 have been women.
However big moment of achievement it has been, female astronauts including Dr. Meir shared that they just want this to be seen as doing their job. “This is really just us doing our jobs,” Dr. Meir said in one interview, expressing her gratitude to female explorers, scientists, engineers and astronauts who paved the path to women in space before her. Ms. Koch in an interview with NASA TV was also asked if it bothers her that her accomplishments are often talked about in terms of her gender. She shared that with much thinking and reflections, it is important because of the historical nature of their jobs. She shared that women were always not limited to table discussions. She added that it is wonderful to be part of the program when all contributions are being accepted and when everyone has a role to play. This can lead to bring more success.