Public interest in the space industry lately has grown exponentially. Not from exploration or technological advancement in particular, but because of the recent successes that women have had in the industry. Many different organizations, from the likes of NASA to the lesser-known analog mission programs, have taken great strides toward not only future exploration, but an exploration of equality.
Late last year, we saw the completion of a historic milestone: the very first all-female spacewalk at the International Space Station (ISS). On 18th October 2019, astronauts Christina Koch and Jessica Meir took part in the 221st spacewalk, which oversaw the repair of a battery charge/discharge unit on the exterior of the ISS. While NASA has claimed such a spacewalk was not a planned event, the event assuredly deserves its noted praise. Women were only first admitted to the astronaut program in 1978, nearly ten years after the Apollo 11 moon landing, and it wasn’t until 1983 that NASA saw its first woman in space.
Astronauts Jessica Meir (left) and Christina Koch (right) on board the International Space Station (ISS). Photo courtesy of nasa.gov.
This historic spacewalk had not been the first time a female had performed such an event. In 1984, astronaut Svetlana Savitskaya successfully completed a spacewalk to repair and support the exterior of the Salyut 7 space station. However, the Koch/Meir spacewalk was the first time a spacewalk had been conducted solely by women. NASA had mentioned that an all-female spacewalk was an assured eventuality owing to there being a large increase in the number of female astronauts.
Koch said it was important to highlight the milestone as the first all-female spacewalk. “Seeing those milestones be broken,” she said, “tells people where we are at and where we think the importance lies.”
The surge of public interest and awareness for the advancements of women in the industry has helped to fuel the fires for NASA to bring the first woman to the moon by 2024 as part of the Artemis lunar exploration program, and afterwards to bring female astronauts to Mars.
Astronaut Christina Koch. Photo courtesy of cnbc.com
While astronauts Koch and Meir made history with their spacewalk, Koch made further history during her time in the ISS. She had been a resident of the ISS for 328 days which broke the record for the longest time spent in space by an American woman in a single mission. That record was previously held by astronaut Peggy Whitson, whose record spaceflight for a single mission in 2017 lasted for 289 days. Koch had arrived at the ISS for what she thought to be a standard six-month mission, but her flight was extended by NASA to further collect data about the effects of long-term spaceflight. She claimed it was “important for future spaceflight plans, going forward to the moon and Mars, [to see] how the human body is affected by microgravity for the long term”. And going to Mars is most definitely a long-term flight.
In preparation for an eventual journey to Mars, HI-SEAS, the Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation, has just completed an all-female mission, Sensoria I, in a mock Mars habitat. Situated on the remote slopes of Mauna Loa volcano on the big island of Hawaii, six women successfully endured a two-week space simulation as part of the new Sensoria Project.
Mission commander J.J. Hastings and researchers Erin Bonilla, Adriana Blachowicz, Makiah Eustice, Sian Proctor and Maraia Hoffman spent the two-week mission “swabbing ‘Martian’ surfaces and performing genetic sequencing on-site, fermenting foods, exploring new technologies, illustrating, developing new non-verbal methods of communication, [and] working on sustainable hydrogels” all within a space-like environment. While this is not the first all-female analog mission to have been conducted, that being the Mars Society’s Mars Desert Research Station and their missions in Utah during 2005 and 2007, this is the first all-female mission for the HI-SEAS.
The successful HI-SEAS analog mission featuring the members of the organization’s first all-female mission. Photo courtesy of space.com.
Mission commander Hastings relayed the designs of the Sensoria Project to be “a larger initiative that will include a series of missions that will be female-led and female-majority”. This does not mean HI-SEAS will be solely exclusive to women. HI-SEAS and the Sensoria Program will admit men to the program, but will ensure women “given a platform for professional development, [and] opportunities for research and training.”
Bringing together extraordinary people of various talents and ability has always been a cornerstone of progression. But the need and desire for a melting pot of different capabilities and expertise seems to be highlighted now more than ever. The International Space University, of which all-female spacewalk participant Jessica Meir is an alum, hosts a three-part philosophy to the development of future leaders, that being through interdisciplinary education in an international and intercultural environment. Such a philosophy applies strongly to both the past and the future of the space industry and lends an illustrious gravity to the accomplishments of this past year which have seen equality and representation take one step closer to normality.
Seeing these milestones be achieved with such relative ease, women seem to finally be getting the recognition they deserve for their skill and determination. Female skill and expertise have always been there, but the world finally seems to be noticing and regarding these women with the respect they have long deserved. And the milestone events are a testament to that fact. Christina Koch referred to the recent achievements of the all-female spacewalk and her record-breaking spaceflight as “inspiring”. “It is not so much about how many days you’re up here,” she says, “but what you bring to each day, so [it is] another great reminder to just bring your best.”
– Evan Cook