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A Giant Step For Womankind

Written by Science

On 18th October two astronauts, Jessica Meir and Christina Koch, performed an extravehicular activity (EVA) to replace a faulty power unit. The spacewalk duration time was 7 hours 17 minutes and was first in the world’s history to be performed only by women. The event was broadcast live on NASA’s official Facebook page.

Jessica Meir and Christina Koch were selected to the NASA training program in 2013. Meir worked previously for the space agency, supporting research on human physiology in Johnson Space Center, while Koch was an Electrical Engineer in NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

The spacewalk took place in the middle of a series of EVAs, aiming at changing the old nickel-hydrogen batteries to more powerful lithium-ion ones. Koch and Meir’s task was to replace a power unit which had failed and was preventing the newly installed batteries from providing power. The current spaceflight is the first of both women and the spacewalk was Koch’s fourth and Meir’s first. This is not the only historic achievement for women in space the astronauts are contributing to. Christina Koch is scheduled to spend a total of 328 days on the International Space Station, which will be the longest time in single flight to stay in space by a female astronaut.

The all-female spacewalk was in fact scheduled for March this year and was to be performed by astronauts Christina Koch and Annie McClain. During her first spacewalk, McClain observed the best fit of the spacesuit is the medium-sized one (M), and not the large (L). While both women’s fit is M-sized suit, only one properly sized could be provided on time. Although McClain received training in the outerwear of both sizes, she decided not to risk her safety by stepping out to the vacuum in an ill-fitting spacesuit, so the spacewalk with Koch was instead completed by her colleague, Nick Hague.

The event triggered a media discussion about female contribution to space exploration. Around 11% of people sent into space are women, starting with the Soviet cosmonaut and first woman in space Valentina Tereshkova, and the first female to perform an EVA, Svetlana Savitskaya. Some people even came up with a statement that women are better suited than men for space exploration missions due to their physical and psychological qualities. In 2014, NASA published an article titled: “The Impact of Sex and Gender on Adaptation to Space: Executive Summary” in the Journal of Women’s Health. The researchers analysed differences between male and female astronauts in the way they are affected by a prolonged stay in space. For example, they found that flight-induced visual impairment affects only men astronauts, and orthostatic intolerance is more frequently observed in women. The research also emphasises the importance of increasing the female contribution, as the sample size of women being sent to space was very modest.

Meanwhile Artemis, the mission planned to land the first woman and the next man on the lunar surface, is expected to be completed by 2024. I am pleased to see NASA’s efforts to increase the female participation in space exploration after decades of all-male missions and hope for safe, uninterrupted return of the astronauts staying currently at ISS.

Last modified: 2nd November 2019

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