In her high school yearbook, NASA astronaut Jessica Meir wrote “go for a spacewalk” on the list of her plans for the future, Meir said Monday during a news conference from the International Space Station.
Now, she can check that box. Meir, alongside fellow astronaut and friend Christina Koch successfully conducted the first all-female spacewalk outside of the space station on Friday.
While both women recognize how important and historic their spacewalk was, they also hope it becomes commonplace and isn’t regarded as a big deal in the future.
Meir and Koch have been training together for more than six years and were both selected as astronauts in 2013. Their astronaut class was the first to include 50% women and 50% men.
“We are trending in the right direction,” Meir said. “There are more females and more diversity in general in STEM fields that has led to a higher percentage of women in astronaut classes.To me, that kind of gender equality and inclusion is the way to get the job done for a successful mission.”
Meir and Koch agreed that each person can provide a different way of looking at problems, coming up with creative solutions. A more diverse team can be a happier team as well, they said.
And they’re pleased to hear that gender-specific language like “manned” spaceflight missions is becoming more inclusive and using “human” or “humankind” instead.
Koch has previously spoken about the importance of seeing someone that looks like yourself in a role that you want to reach.
“I’ve drawn encouragement from mentors that I can see reflections of myself in throughout my life,” Koch said. Both astronauts see it as an incredible honor if they can do the same for others and “potentially inspire the future.”
This was Meir’s first spacewalk. Although she trained for years in the neutral buoyancy lab at Johnson Space Center, which is essentially a large pool, she said stepping outside was a unique experience.
“It really was an incredible experience and a mixture of emotions going out the door the first time,” Meir said. “I’ll never forget looking down and seeing my boots and the Earth below.”
In the water, drag helps the astronauts stop moving. But in space, the lack of gravity means that any movement can send an astronaut spinning or turning. In addition to wearing the suits and working on repairs to the outside of the station for more than seven hours, the astronauts also have to keep themselves in place. Astronauts agree that spacewalks can be one of the most physically challenging things they do.
For Meir and Koch, it was even more special that the two friends could conduct a spacewalk together. For Koch, it was her fourth spacewalk, but she enjoyed helping Meir prepare. Koch tried to explain how it feels to look down and see the Earth 250 miles beneath you – something Koch barely had time to notice herself during her busy first spacewalk.
But both appreciated it together this time.
“The clarity of the Earth bellow you is absolutely stunningly beautiful,” Koch said. “And how close it feels. Seeing nothing but a vibrant ocean beneath your feet is an amazing experience.”
The first woman to conduct a spacewalk was Russian cosmonaut Svetlana Savitskaya in 1984, followed closely by NASA astronaut Kathy Sullivan.Twelve US women had conducted 40 spacewalks over the past 35 years. Koch and Meir were the 13th and 14th, respectively.
Speaking of the women whose legacies paved the way for the historic spacewalk, Koch said “we pay homage to the fact that they allowed us to achieve the dreams that we have.”
Koch and Meir replaced a faulty battery charge/discharge unit that failed to activate after a spacewalk on October 11, according to the agency. Because the unit faltered, it kept newly installed batteries from providing an increase in power to the station.
The space station is powered by solar arrays and four sets of batteries. Luckily, the faulty unit hasn’t changed anything for the astronauts or experiments on board. The unit regulates the charge in the batteries from the solar arrays as the station orbits at night around the Earth.
Now that the unit is replaced, postponed spacewalks to replace the batteries can be rescheduled.
During the spacewalk, Koch was actually able to ride on the end of the robotic arm, something not many astronauts have the opportunity to do. It involved installing a foot restraint on the end of the arm.
When Koch returned from her spacewalk Friday, she reported the presence of something on her glove, which was investigated. The engineers believe it’s a grease stain from the mechanical component on the arm. Otherwise, the spacewalk was uneventful “in a good way,” and the astronauts were able to establish some get-ahead maintenance on the station.
The upcoming spacewalks will help replace solar array batteries and upgrade them to lithium-ion batteries, as well as refurbish the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, a scientific instrument “that explores the fundamental nature of the universe,” according to NASA.
It’s possible that Koch and Meir could conduct another spacewalk together. Koch arrived on the International Space Station on March 14 for her first spaceflight mission.She is set to remain on the station until February 2020, which will make her time on the station the longest single spaceflight by a woman. Meir arrived on the space station for her first six-month mission at the beginning of October.
Koch and Meir are included in the list of 12 women that could be the first female astronaut on the moon in 2024. Although they don’t know about the details of the selection process, both agreed that the honor of being the first woman on the moon would be overwhelming.