Friday marks a historic day in NASA’s history as two astronauts, Christina Koch and Jessica Meir, embark on the first all-female spacewalk to replace a failed battery charge/discharge unit outside the International Space Station (ISS). The walk began early in the morning for the U.S. and is slated to take five-and-a-half-hours from start to finish.
The women, who are good friends on and off the space station, are performing NASA’s second attempt at an all-female spacewalk after a first attempt in March was canceled due to a lack of size medium spacesuits. This massive oversight sparked outcries of sexism from the public and makes the success of this first all-female spacewalk all the more important.
This second iteration was announced by NASA on October 8th and had originally been scheduled for October 21st but was moved up after a unit installed during last Friday’s spacewalk subsequently failed.
This will be NASA’s 221st spacewalk in support of space agency assembly, maintenance and upgrades, but only the fourth and first for Koch and Meir respectively. This historic spacewalk will join the ranks of only 43 other spacewalks that have included any women. Of the previous women to have walked in space, 14 were American and one was Russian.
Koch, who is leading the pair as evidenced by the red stripes on her spacesuit, is a Michigan native and flight engineer with a master’s degree in electrical engineering. During her previous three spacewalks, she’s amassed a total of 20 hours and 31 minutes outside the ISS. She became an astronaut in 2013 and arrived at the space station in March. On December 28 of this year, she will break the record for the longest single spaceflight by a woman.
Meir is considered the EV2 of this spacewalk (or, extravehicular crew member 2, as NASA calls them) and is also a flight engineer originally selected as an astronaut in 2013. Born in Maine, she has a doctorate in marine biology. Meir will be the 228th person to walk in space and the 15th woman.
NASA’s coverage of today’s spacewalk began bright and early at 6:30 a.m. Eastern time with a quote from Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, “I would like to be remembered as someone who was not afraid to do what she wanted to do.”
"“I would like to be remembered as someone who was not afraid to do what she wanted to do.”
The opening introduction also ended with a reminder that NASA plans to place the first woman on the moon in 2024 as part of the Artemis program, which NASA announced all-new spacesuits for earlier this week. NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine announced that these suits would “fit all of our astronauts,” in a nod to the embarrassing wardrobe oversights that originally delayed the first all-female spacewalk in March.
The space station has been gradually switching installed batteries from two nickel-hydrogen cells to a single lithium-ion cell and Friday’s spacewalk mainly focuses on replacing a failed battery charge/discharge unit. These units are used to keep electricity flowing from the space station’s six solar arrays to the systems they power. There are 24 such units on the space station, and they work to ensure that the battery attached to the solar panel stays at its maximum state of charge to ensure around-the-clock supply of power even when the sun is not shining. The unit in question is 19 years old and is currently only supplying around 10 kilowatts instead of the expected 15 kilowatts.
While performing spacewalks is nothing new to NASA and its astronauts, it’s by no means a walk in the park. Instead, it ranks as one of the most physically demanding tasks an astronaut will need to undertake. Engineers take around 80 different body measurements for astronauts ahead of a spacewalk, ensuring that the correct size is chosen for the suit’s 16 major elements. Just the gloves alone come in 65 different sizes!
Beyond sizing, astronauts have to prepare to exit the station. To avoid nitrogen bubbles in the blood, similar to how scuba divers suffer from “the bends,” astronauts have to spend two hours breathing pure oxygen and engage in some light exercise. And once outside, the discharge unit itself is a hefty beast. It has a weight on Earth of 235 pounds and measures 28 by 40 by 12 inches. Koch and Meir will have to maneuver carefully in order to keep both themselves and the unit safe during the spacewalk.
The goal is to bring it back down to Earth so engineers can take a closer look and work out what went wrong.
While the spacewalk itself is well underway now, there’s is still a long road in front of Koch and Meir before it’s over. The spacewalk, which is slated to last five-and-a-half-hours, should be wrapping up just around 1 p.m. Eastern time. To stay up-to-date on the action you can tune-in to NASA’s live stream from the link below.