Women Make History With First All-Female Space Walk
This morning, two astronauts donned spacesuits and stepped outside the International Space Station to make repairs. While the task was routine, the participants were not; this was the first time both astronauts on a spacewalk were women. Jessica Meir and Christina Koch are part of a class of astronauts known as the “8-Balls.” Made up of four men and four women, it’s the first time a newly-minted class of astronauts has been split between the genders.
Meir and Koch’s spacewalk was a radical departure from the days when the first astronauts and cosmonauts were almost all male. The first female space traveler was the Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova, who flew into space in 1963—four years after the very first cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin. Prior to that, the United States actually trained women for the Mercury missions as backups, just in case the novelty of the space environment revealed a vulnerability of men that women were not susceptible to. When the men did just fine, the program was scrapped in 1961. It wasn’t until twenty-two years later that astronaut Sally Ride became the first American woman to travel to space.
Interestingly, it turns out that women may indeed have some physiological advantages over men on space missions. For example, women, in general, require substantially fewer calories pound for pound than men do. That means bringing less food on a mission, which reduces the necessary mass of the mission… and in space travel, minimizing mass is everything. What’s also true—for reasons which are not well understood—is that while all astronauts experience impaired vision during missions, only women routinely recover.
Whether these differences end up being significant or not in the midst of the vast complexity of a space mission, we will have to see. Certainly the diversity of future challenges will give us many chances to find out.
-Marc Taylor, Manager, Planetarium and Science Programs