NASA and their all-female spacewalk by Freya Wood

As a fitting end to women’s history month, NASA will be conducting their first ever all-female spacewalk. On the 29th March, Christina Koch and Anne McClain will take a giant leap for womankind and leave the International Space Station (ISS) to conduct maintenance on the exterior of the spacecraft. They will receive ground support from an all-female ground team, flight director Mary Lawrence and Kristen Facciol. Throughout history, women have been a critical but hidden force behind NASA’s work– it is about time their extraordinary contributions were recognised.

Russian astronaut Alexei Leonov was the first person to perform EVA (extravehicular activity) in space in 1965, 13 years before the first women astronauts were even selected. His spacewalk lasted ten minutes. Since 1998, 213 spacewalks have occurred, performed by all male or male-female teams and there have been just four occasions in 60 years of spacewalks where crews have included two female members trained for spacewalks. Soviet astronaut Svetlana Savitskaya was the first woman to perform a spacewalk in 1984.

So, why do spacewalks take place? Firstly, they allow crews to conduct repairs on a craft– a more practical and much cheaper solution than returning a structure to Earth for maintenance. They also allow agencies to station crafts in orbit permanently, for example the ISS and Hubble telescope. Spacewalks also provide opportunities to test equipment and conduct science experiments in space. Placing small organisms, tissue growths and chemical mixtures on the outside of spacecrafts enables us to investigate how the vacuum of space affects different organisms and processes.

Koch and McClain’s walk will last seven hours. Neither woman has conducted a spacewalk before, but they have completed rigorous ground training in preparation. For each hour spent outside in space, an astronaut will train for seven hours on land, either in neutral buoyancy laboratories (a fancy name for a big swimming pool) or using virtual reality helmets that simulate a spacewalk. As with many STEM fields, it is a common argument that fewer women are chosen for projects because there are fewer women in the industry. However, McClain and Koch were part of NASA’s first 50:50 male and female class in 2013. Furthermore, this spacewalk milestone was not planned, and certainly not a publicity stunt for women’s history month. The spacewalk was initially planned for late 2018 but was postponed until the ISS regained a full six-person crew. McClain has been on the ISS since the 3rd December and along with two male colleagues, has been conducting technical preparations for the walk. Koch and the rest of the crew arrived at the ISS on the 14th March. NASA spokeswoman Stephanie Schierholz described the selection of two female astronauts as ‘luck of the draw’ but also stresses that while this is an exciting event, NASA’s sentiment is that it is more important this walk is not the only one.

Like most organisations in history, NASA’s past has been dominated by men. Of the 533 people to have reached Earth’s orbit, 474 are men. In fact, the first female astronauts were not selected until 1978, 19 years after the first group of male astronauts in 1959. In the 1970’s NASA employed Nichelle Nichols, the actress who played Lieutenant Uhura in Star Trek, in order to directly appeal to women and minority groups and diversify their workforce. Her tour of American universities was successful in securing 1000s of applications to NASA. Today, one-third of NASA’s workforce are women.

With all the recent milestones for women in space, we must not forget the contribution of some incredible women at NASA, who paved the way for women in the organisation today. Margaret Hamilton led the MIT team that developed ‘priority alarm displays’, allowing spacecrafts to recognise when they were overloaded with tasks and continue only those essential to landing. This software was integral to allowing the safe landing of Apollo 11 and man’s first steps on the moon in 1969. From the early 1940s to 1958, black female employees were segregated in the Langley Research Centre. These women included Dorothy Vaughan, the subject of the recent Hidden Figures film who was a mathematician and ‘human computer’ specialising in flight paths and FORTRAN computer programming. As computers were introduced to the industry, Dorothy began teaching programming languages to women to ensure they would continue to have jobs. Mary Jackson was another human computer at NASA and rose through the ranks to achieve the most senior title in the engineering department. She then accepted a demotion to work in Equal Opportunities and highlight women and minorities in the field.

NASA’s all-female spacewalk is a milestone for women in space but also gives us the opportunity to recognise the incredible achievements of women in NASA and other STEM fields. Hopefully, in the future these events won’t be newsworthy, they will just be the norm.

Image: © Elizabeth Weissinger/NASA; Victor Zelentsov/NASA

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