First all-female spacewalk team takes on space station repairs — and makes history

NASA astronaut Christina Koch floats on the end of the International Space Station’s robotic arm during a spacewalk. (NASA via YouTube)

For the first time in history, two women teamed up today to take on a spacewalk.

NASA astronauts Christina Koch and Jessica Meir officially began the operation to fix a faulty electrical power system on the International Space Station at 7:38 a.m. ET (4:38 a.m. PT)  — setting a new precedent in the process.

“They are an inspiration to people all over the world, including me,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said.

This is the fourth spacewalk for Koch, who’s been on the space station since March and is due to set a 328-day women’s record for continuous time in space next year. It’s the first spacewalk for Meir, a space rookie who arrived at the station last month. NASA is airing live video coverage of the operation, which is expected to last about five and a half hours in all.

As a bonus, woman astronaut Stephanie Wilson is coordinating the spacewalk at NASA’s Mission Control in Houston.

“Amazing view out here,” Meir remarked as she worked.

“Phenomenal,” Koch replied.

Ken Bowersox, NASA’s acting associate administrator for human exploration and operations, said it’s taken so long to have an all-female spacewalk team in part because of physical characteristics and equipment limitations. “It’s a little bit like playing in the NBA,” he said.

Historically, NASA has favored taller astronauts for spacewalks, and those astronauts tended to be men, Bowersox said. But with a more diverse astronaut corps, NASA is devoting more attention to accommodating a wider range of body sizes — and spacesuit sizes.

The first pairing of two spacewalking women was originally scheduled in March, but that plan had to be put off when NASA decided they couldn’t get two medium-size spacesuit torsos ready on schedule. Instead, the spacewalk lineup was shuffled to have the women working alongside male crewmates.

Koch and Meir were well-equipped for today’s spacewalk, which addressed an urgent problem on the space station.

The space station’s crew is in the midst of a battery replacement campaign that requires five spacewalks to complete. Two spacewalks have already been done, and Koch and Meir were scheduled to take their turn on Oct. 21.

But just a few days ago, mission managers determined that a battery charge-discharge unit, or BCDU, wasn’t working properly with a new set of batteries.

The BCDUs regulate the amount of electrical charge that the station’s solar arrays put into the power system’s batteries. NASA says the unit’s failure after 19 years of operation doesn’t immediately affect station operations or crew safety, but it does prevent the new batteries from providing the expected increase in power.

A similar BCDU failure occurred in April, and the station is now down to only three or four spares. Mission managers are anxious to resolve the latest glitch and figure out what the problem is.

“It’s absolutely a concern at this point, when you don’t know what’s going on,” Kenny Todd, NASA’s manager of space station operations and integration, told reporters when the schedule change was announced. “We’re still scratching our heads looking at the data.”

Koch and Meir replaced the bad BCDU and stowed it inside the station in businesslike fashion, pausing only briefly at times to enjoy the view. There was some time left over at the end of the spacewalk to do some get-ahead tasks, such as adjusting a layer of insulation on the space station’s exterior.

NASA had planned to conduct three more battery-replacement spacewalks this month, but those have been put on hold pending the results of today’s repair job.

The need to address the glitch is what led NASA to reshuffle the spacewalk schedule — and as a result, change the timing for making history.

Women have been doing spacewalks ever since Soviet cosmonaut Svetlana Savitskaya ventured outside the Salyut 7 space station in 1984, followed months later by NASA shuttle astronaut Kathryn Sullivan’s outing. But those spacewalkers, and all of the women who followed in their footsteps, did their work in the company of men. Today’s spacewalk finally broke that habit.

Megan McArthur, deputy chief of NASA’s astronaut office, said the milestone merely reflects how the astronaut corps has evolved from its all-male beginnings.

“It will be an exciting event, something we will reflect on certainly after the fact,” she said. “But in truth, in terms of looking at the workload that we have coming forward, this was the right crew to send out to do this set of tasks. All of our crew members are completely qualified to do this, and the fact that it will be two women just is a reflection of the fact that we have so many capable, qualified women in the office.”

NASA astronaut Tracy Caldwell Dyson voiced a similar perspective today in her spacewalk commentary on NASA TV. “I think the milestone is that, hopefully, this will now be considered normal,” she said.