It was hailed as a huge step forward and just in time for Women's History Month. Two American astronauts -- Anne McClain and Christina Koch, were scheduled on March 29 by the Canadian Space Agency to lead the first all-female spacewalk.
However, due to McClain requesting a change in her spacesuit size less than a week ago, only Koch will spacewalk with a male colleague on the 29th. Together, they will be upgrading the batteries for the International Space Station's solar power system.
The good news? McClain is scheduled to spacewalk on April 7 for the second time, having done so already on March 22. More good news: women are still well represented at all levels. From the ground, Kristen Facciol, the flight controller, will support the mission. Mary Lawrence will be lead flight director, and Jackie Kagey will serve as lead flight controller.
So… What is A Spacewalk?
A spacewalk, also called EVA (extravehicular activity), is when an astronaut leaves their vehicle and goes out in space.
Astronauts wear one of eleven spacesuits on the ISS, each of which cost $22 million! The spacesuits provide oxygen, water, and two key safety components. These include Simplified Aid for EVA Rescues (SAFERs), which use small jet thrusters to allow astronauts to move around in space, and safety tethers that keep their tools and them from drifting into oblivion. It is very important that the spacesuits fit the astronauts perfectly.
Astronauts usually perform spacewalks to repair satellites and test new equipment. This way, they don’t need to bring all the broken space equipment to Earth for repairs. They also perform science experiments on the spacewalk, so scientists can learn how space affects certain experiments.
Challenges of a Spacewalk
But a spacewalk isn’t all fun and games. When astronauts venture into black space, even the most minor tear or puncture can lead to a catastrophic leak in the spacesuit. Not only that, but if astronauts put on their cumbersome 330-pound suit too quickly before heading outside, the rapid change in air pressure could cause nitrogen gas bubbles to expand in their blood vessels. This could cause severe pain—to paralysis—to even death.
Even after that, there’s a chance of the spacewalker losing consciousness from exhaustion, as work in zero-gravity space requires much more effort than on Earth. And the worst of all: the safety tether could break and strand the astronaut in space. Astronauts must remain vigilant while on complex and treacherous spacewalks; the scenery may be spectacular, but no one wants to be stuck above Earth forever!
McClain has defended NASA's decision saying the organization's priority is to keep its astronauts safe. Assembling another spacesuits at short notice might have been risky. Regardless, Koch and McClain are important figures since less than eleven percent of the people who have gone to space are women. Spacewalks, which rarely take place, have ultimately been male-dominated, so even without an all-women crew, Koch’s team is still an inspiration.
These rookie spacewalkers are inspiring girls around the world. Hopefully, there will even be more women in action in the future!
Sources: NASA, BBC, CNBC, Space, Washington Post