Two female astronauts join forces on the first all-women spacewalk today, heralding in a pivotal event for the visibility and normalisation of women in STEM.
At approximately 7:50am ET today, astronauts Christina Koch and Jessica Meir secured their place in history books by venturing out of the International Space Station’s (ISS) Quest airlock and into the vacuum of space.
The pair will spend just over five hours outside the ISS to fix a failed power unit, in the world’s first all-female spacewalk.
NASA’s previous attempt at the record back in March was cancelled due to a lack of spacesuits that fitted the female torso; an oversight that frustrated many who felt the move was already long overdue.
In the male-dominated world of space exploration, the ambitions and achievements of female astronauts have typically taken a backseat. In 60 years of space flight, there have only been four missions that included two female members trained for spacewalks.
And, while there have been 200 spacewalks at the ISS since 1998, none have been led by women until today.
In this latest spacewalk, astronaut Anne McClain – who was due to take on the original attempt at an all-female expedition in March – is replaced by Meir, who takes the total of female spacewalkers to 14.
It’s a momentous occasion, not least because it represents a move towards the normalisation of women in the space industry, after years of being marginalised.
“It’s a sign of the slowly growing number of women in the astronaut corps,” Kathy Sullivan, who became the first American female to walk in space in 1984, told CBS News. “The occasional woman as a bit of a novelty on a crew or a spacewalk or on a mission control console is giving way to the normalcy of more gender-diverse teams in all these arenas and women regularly taking on high-stakes tasks and leadership roles.”
This shift in working culture is key as women in STEM industries push to assert their contributions and make their voices heard, paving the way to a future generation of female scientists. This, in turn, will impact the direction and outcome of key fields of research.
It’s also important on a logistical level: since the mishap earlier this year, NASA has unveiled a new “moon suit” prototype that will adapt to provide a customised fit no matter what the wearer’s shape or size.
Most of all, though, the first female spacewalk is significant because of the way it secures the role of female astronauts in history. Too often, women have been rendered invisible from key events and narratives of the past, across all genres. This development today represents one small step to redressing the balance – and a giant leap forward for womankind.