NASA Astronauts Make History with 1st All-Woman Spacewalk

One giant leap for womankind! Two NASA astronauts made space history today (Oct. 18) as they completed the first-ever spacewalk by an all-woman team.

The historic extravehicular activity (EVA) began at 7:38 EDT (1138 GMT), which was ahead of schedule as the spacewalk was slated to begin at 7:50 EDT (1150 GMT). The spacewalk, which officially began once both astronauts switched to battery power in their spacesuits, was guided by veteran NASA astronaut and capsule communicator (CAPCOM) Stephanie Wilson on the ground and fellow astronauts Luca Parmitano and Andrew Morgan located on the International Space Station.

Today marks Koch's fourth spacewalk and Meir's first spacewalk. Koch led the EVA and can be identified by the red stripes on her spacesuit and life support backpack. Meir arrived at the space station in September, and both Koch and Meir joined NASA's astronaut corps in 2013. Their astronaut class, nicknamed the "Eight Balls," had the highest percentage of women of any group of astronaut candidates to date.

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NASA astronauts Christina Koch and Jessica Meir onboard the International Space Station. Today (Oct. 18) Koch and Meir completed the first "all women spacewalk." (Image credit: NASA)

This is the 221st spacewalk in support of the space station's maintenance and assembly. Since cosmonaut Svetlana Savitskaya became the first woman to do a spacewalk in 1984, women have participated in 42 spacewalks. Of the 15 women who have done spacewalks, 14 have been NASA astronauts. Koch is on track to make history again in December as she gets closer to setting a new record for the longest amount of time continuously spent in space by a U.S. woman, beating former NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson's former record of 288 days.

Some stats from today's spacewalk on Oct. 18, 2019. (Image credit: NASA/YouTube)

During today's spacewalk, the two astronauts received a call from the White House. While speaking to Donald Trump, Meir said that "we hope that we can provide an inspiration to everybody, not only women, but to everybody that has a dream, that has a big dream, and who is willing to work hard ... this is my first flight and my very first spacewalk, so it is a pretty incredible feeling I'm sure you can all imagine, and it's one I will never forget."

Related: The Most Memorable Spacewalks in History

On the call, President Donald Trump said to Koch and Meir that "I just want to congratulate you. You're both very brave, brilliant women, and you represent this country so well ...  we are very proud of you ... what you do is really something very special. So first the moon, and then we go to Mars. Thank you both."

President Trump also added that “this is the first time for a woman outside of the space station." This is, however, not true as this is actually the 42nd time that women have participated in a spacewalk. Additionally, following Savitskaya in 1984, NASA astronaut Kathryn Sullivan became the first U.S. woman to complete a spacewalk later that same year. 

Related: Women in Space: A Gallery of Firsts

While flying over Southern California, Koch and Meir got some incredible views of planet Earth below them. "Oh, nice!" one of the two spacewalkers said. "Nice," the other replied, marveling at Earth below. 

"Hello, everybody in San Diego!" they said. "Beautiful, that coastline."

"Not a bad view," a spacewalker added.

Commenting on the historic nature of this spacewalk from NASA's Mission Control Center in Houston, NASA astronaut Tracy Caldwell Dyson said, "I think the milestone is hopefully this will now be considered normal ... not to overshadow women [who] have been doing spacewalks for 35 years. I think many of us are looking forward to this just being normal."

NASA astronauts Christina Koch and Jessica Meir complete the first-ever "all-women spacewalk." (Image credit: NASA/YouTube)

Faulty hardware

Originally, this spacewalk would have had the astronauts swap out old nickel-hydrogen batteries for new, improved lithium-ion batteries on the outside of the space station. Each lithium-ion battery can hold the charge of two of the old nickel-hydrogen batteries. 

However, plans changed after there was an issue with one of the station's 24 battery charge/discharge units (BCDU) following the spacewalk completed last Friday (Oct. 11) during which astronauts Andrew Morgan and Koch replaced a set of batteries. 

So today, Koch and Meir worked together to replace the BCDU, a piece of hardware connected to the space station's solar arrays that is used to charge the station's batteries, with a new unit that was stowed on the outside of the station on the external logistics carrier. After installation, initial signals showed that the new unit seemed to be functioning well.

NASA astronaut Christina Koch can be seen here, with red striped on her spacesuit, during the spacewalk on Oct. 18, 2019. (Image credit: NASA/YouTube)

Each BCDU is about 28 by 40 by 12 inches (71 by 102 by 30 centimeters) and 235 lbs. (106.5 kg) on the ground on Earth. To get to the external logistics carrier and transport the large and bulky BCDU devices, Koch rode the station's Canadarm2 robotic arm, which was controlled by Parmitano from the station. It can be tricky to maneuver the arm as "you spend a lot of brainpower interpreting the views that you see and cross-checking with other views," Dyson said.

Once Koch retrieved the new BCDU, she and Meir removed the old, failed device and installed the new unit at the P6 worksite on the exterior of the station. The failed device will be flown back to Earth on a SpaceX Dragon vehicle so that researchers on Earth can study it.

History being made

This being a historic event both for human spaceflight and for women and girls all around the world, NASA included questions asked and excitement shared over social media in the live broadcast of this spacewalk. 

From questions tweeted from school classrooms to photos of young girls inspired by the event, many have gotten involved and shared in this thrilling "first." 

The broadcast also included former NASA astronauts who previously created other historic moments in spaceflight history, including Sally Ride, Eileen Collins and Shannon Lucid. 

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine additionally weighed in on the historic nature of this spacewalk during a teleconference that took place just minutes before the start of today's historic spacewalk. "Here's the thing that we know: we have the right people doing the right job at the right time. We are confident that Christina Koch and Jessica Meir will be able to accomplish this mission. They are an inspiration to people all over the world, including me, and we're very excited to get this mission underway."

"We want, of course, to have space available to everybody, and we need to continually demonstrate that space is available to everybody," he added, mentioning NASA's Artemis program which is currently working to land the first woman on the moon in 2024. "Of course, another reason this is significant is we are preparing right now to send the next man and the first woman to the moon, so this is all emblematic of that," he said.

"Today was especially an honor as we also recognize that this is a milestone. It symbolizes exploration by all that dare to dream and work hard to achieve that dream. Not only that, it's a tribute to those that paved the way for us to be where we are," Meir said at the end of the spacewalk. 

The spacewalkers returning to the airlock onboard the space station on Oct. 18, 2019, as it is seen here from the point of view of the camera in the helmet of astronaut Christina Koch. From Koch's view, you can see astronaut Jessica Meir re-entering the airlock. (Image credit: NASA/YouTube)

Attempts and failures

The first all-woman spacewalk was actually scheduled to take place on March 29, 2019, months ago. Unfortunately, the event was canceled when there were only two medium-sized spacesuits, so only one of the women, Koch, was able to participate in the spacewalk as her fellow NASA astronaut Anne McClain stayed onboard the station.

As to why two women have not completed a spacewalk before Ken Bowersox, the acting administrator for NASA's human exploration division and a former astronaut, said that "there are some physical reasons that make it harder sometimes for women to do spacewalks. It's a little bit like playing in the NBA, you know I'm too short to play in the NBA and sometimes physical characteristics make a difference in certain activities, and spacewalks are one of those areas where just how your body is built in space, it makes a difference in how well you can work the suit," during the teleconference this morning. 

This sentiment, however, reflects stereotypes rather than reality. Since NASA first began including women in the astronaut corps in the 1980s, women have successfully completed all assigned spacewalks without any difficulties related to their gender. This history was continued today, as both Koch and Meir finished their spacewalk, having completed both their assigned tasks and extra "go ahead" activities. 

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Chelsea Gohd
Senior Writer

Chelsea “Foxanne” Gohd joined in 2018 and is now a Senior Writer, writing about everything from climate change to planetary science and human spaceflight in both articles and on-camera in videos. With a degree in Public Health and biological sciences, Chelsea has written and worked for institutions including the American Museum of Natural History, Scientific American, Discover Magazine Blog, Astronomy Magazine and Live Science. When not writing, editing or filming something space-y, Chelsea "Foxanne" Gohd is writing music and performing as Foxanne, even launching a song to space in 2021 with Inspiration4. You can follow her on Twitter @chelsea_gohd and @foxannemusic.