Making “HERstory” with First All-Women Spacewalk

On the 18th of October, 2019, Christina Koch and Jessica Meir made ‘HERstory’ by completing the first ever all-women spacewalk. Mrs. Koch, an electrical engineer, and Ms. Meir, a marine biologist and physiologist, completed their 4th and 1st spacewalks, respectively.

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All-Women Spacewalk

“Making “HERstory” with First All-Women Spacewalk” was written by SWE FY20 Global Ambassador Preethi Karpoor.

“A few small steps for two ladies, a huge step for womankind.”

Well, no one said that specifically to quote, but that’s what happened! Just a few days ago, two valorous women floated breezily in the vast expanse of the night sky, with their raison d’être being to replace a failed power control unit aboard the International Space Station (ISS).

Making "HERstory" with First All-Women Spacewalk

A foreward view of the International Space Station backdropped by the limb of the Earth.
CREDIT: NASA/Crew of STS-132

So what’s new? Haven’t hordes of astronauts visited the ISS before? Haven’t female astronauts done spacewalks prior to this? Yes, but women have never done this all by themselves.

On the 18th of October, 2019, Christina Koch and Jessica Meir made ‘HERstory’ by completing the first ever all-women spacewalk. Mrs. Koch, an electrical engineer and Ms. Meir, a marine biologist and physiologist completed their 4th and 1st spacewalks, respectively. They spent seven hours outside the International Space Station, replacing a battery charge/discharge unit that failed to activate after new lithium ion batteries were installed on the space station’s exterior structure on Oct. 11. The unit is one of several that regulate the charge put into the batteries collecting energy from the station’s solar arrays.

Astronaut Stephanie Wilson
Astronaut Stephanie Wilson

Mrs. Koch, who is an electrical engineer en route to creating a record for longest spaceflight by a woman said, ”I think it’s important because of the historical nature of what we’re doing. In the past, women haven’t always been at the table. It’s wonderful to be contributing to the space program at a time when all contributions are being accepted, when everyone has a role. That can lead in turn to increased chance for success.” Another interesting fact was that the spacewalk was coordinated from the Mission Control Centre by Stephanie Wilson, who is only the 2nd African-American female astronaut and is a veteran of three spaceflights , which serves as a testimony of what women can achieve with their collaborative efforts!

While spacewalks are a staple in the maintenance and upgradation activities aboard the ISS, this event was of special interest after NASA had canceled it in March earlier this year citing lack of spacesuits in the correct size (read the SWE Magazine article on that here). Rest assured, a lot of us are grateful to NASA for fixing this with utmost priority! Although Kathryn Sullivan walked in space 35 years ago, women make up less than 11% of history’s space explorers and only 14 out of 227 spacewalkers, which is an alarming number—and this is a welcome step in improving these stats.

Women have been historically under-represented in almost all STEM-related sectors. Despite the pace of technological advancement, particularly in technology and the gigantic contribution to the same by many enterprising women, the population in space science and engineering have remained a noticeable minority. What makes it so? Is it the historical, social , cultural bias or is it some form of internalized bias? Or rather, more realistically, lack of data on impact of spaceflight on female body? There might be a million reasons. But will pondering on them do any good if we actually don’t try to work as a community to lead a change?

Most of us, at one point or the other, have dreamt of  ‘reaching the stars.’ Without an ounce of doubt, these two women are living our dream this very minute. Working in an office hovering way above the clouds, gazing at the beautiful blue planet we call home is something we’d all kill for. Living in a time where every woman is trying her hardest to make headway in a world that is not a gender-neutral place, this is what dreams looks like. This is what ambition looks like. Yes, it may be a humdrum task, but the very fact that millions plugged in to watch two women opening the hatch and wandering into the darkness itself is empowering and is a ray of hope. This only pushes us to create a community of women who are ready to take on adversities, and set an example not just by executing the assigned task but by leading from the forefront.

Even today, the posters of Kalpana Chawla and Sunita Williams hang proudly in a corner of my room, and now Jessica Meir’s and Christina Koch’s will as well, because Marian Wright Edelman said, “You can’t be what you don’t see,”—and I most certainly aspire to be like them: exploring the unexplored, courageous in the realm of the unknown, without the barrier of day and night, and most importantly, leading the way inspiring all along!

– Preethi R. Karpoor

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