Quick Take

All women spacewalk: A giant leap for womankind

| Updated on October 26, 2019

U.S. astronauts Jessica Meir (L) and Christina Koch pose in the International Space Station.NASA/Handout via REUTERS.

U.S. astronauts Jessica Meir and Christina Koch make the first all-female spacewalk outside the International Space Station in a still image from video October 18, 2019. NASA/Handout via REUTERS.

Women should get significant roles in space and inter-planetary missions

When astronauts Christina Koch and Jessica Meir floated out of the International Space Station on Friday, October 18, to successfully replace a failed power control unit in an operation that lasted over seven hours, it was a giant leap for womankind.

The historic first spacewalk by an all-female team and coordinated mostly by a veteran woman astronaut, Stephanie Wilson, from the mission centre goes beyond symbolism. It recognises the ability of women to execute tricky operations in the space.

But it cannot be ignored that the all-women spacewalk was a much-delayed event, considering that women have been in space since 1963, when Valentina Tereshkova flew with the Vostok-6 mission, and they have spacewalked since 1984 when Svetlana Savitskaya of the USSR and Kathyrn D Sullivan of the US walked a few months apart.

Until this October, 14 women of different nationalities had successfully carried out extra-vehicular activities, as spacewalks are referred to, over the last 35 years, mostly to carry out some essential housekeeping activities outside the space station, such as replacing a failed part. Meir is the 15th female astronaut to spacewalk. Until October 18, female astronauts were sent in teams with male astronauts on such walks.

It is not that women astronauts are not competent enough to carry out these activities alone, rather it was a case of NASA and other space organisations not sending all-female teams outside the space station. In this specific case of NASA, it failed to ensure that there were more than one medium-sized spacesuits together its components onboard the space station to enable all-female spacewalks.

The ISS had only one medium-sized spacesuit that fits women compared to the larger-sized ones that are made for men. That lapse prevented an all-women spacewalk scheduled for March. It was only after NASA sent up another medium-sized space-suit earlier this month that the October 18 event could happen. Spacewalking requires special suits fitted with components of appropriate size that fits the astronaut well to protect his or her body from harm due to changes in pressures and gravity outside the space station. For NASA, the next milestone is landing a woman on the moon.

Women have been involved in critical functions in space missions in countries that have projects running. In India, women have had critical roles in the Mangalyaan and Chandrayaan missions. M Vanitha was the project director and Ritu Karidhal was the mission director of the recent Chandrayaan 2 mission. Karidhal was earlier the deputy operations director for the Mangalyaan mission. Space organisations in India and other key nations such as the US, China and Russia need to embrace institutional changes that allow women scientists and astronauts take on significant and critical roles.

Published on October 26, 2019

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