Celebrating Women’s History Month with NASA’s first all-female spacewalk

March 12, 2020

In photo above: NASA astronauts Jessica Meir and Christina Koch on Oct. 18, 2019. Photo source: NASA Johnson.

By Maristela Romero

In October 2019, flight engineers Christina Koch and Jessica Meir formed the all-female spacewalk at the International Space Station, marking a historic moment for women in NASA.

Fifty-seven years ago, women were not represented with the same opportunities. A young girl named Linda Halpern penned a letter to President John F. Kennedy, inquiring about a pathway to pursue her dream of becoming an astronaut. The then-director of an office of “public services and information” wrote back, “We have no present plans to employ women on space flights.”

From the accomplishments of Sally Ride, the first American female astronaut, to software engineer Margaret Hamilton, whose computer programs safely launched the first man on the moon, the women of NASA have come a long way from the agency’s early days—when they were only expected to do secretarial work.

The all-female spacewalk was a milestone that would have happened seven months earlier, but NASA altered the original lineup, which included astronaut Anne McClain instead of Meir, due to the lack of smaller size spacesuits for women. McClain recommended NASA replace her on this mission with Nick Hague who could fit into the available spacesuit, thus delaying the female spacewalk.

More suits were made to fit women, and the all-female spacewalk proceeded with Koch and Meir. The two astronauts completed a seven-hour excursion during which they replaced the large lithium-ion batteries that help power the space station’s research laboratory.

“We caught each other’s eye, and we knew that we were really honored with this opportunity to inspire so many, and just hearing our voices talk to mission control, knowing two female voices had never been on the loops, solving those problems together outside. It was a really special feeling,” Koch said.

Koch returned from her spaceflight in early February 2020 after spending 328 days in space, setting records for the second longest spaceflight by a U.S. astronaut and the longest single flight by a woman.

Experiments completed during her 328-day mission with the Expedition 61 crew will contribute to NASA’s understanding of human adaptation in space to prepare for “humanity’s return to the moon” by 2024.

The expedition was supported by a ground team with women in notable positions, including spacewalk flight director Mary Lawrence and lead officer Jackie Kagey.

During NASA’s live coverage of the spacewalk, astronaut Tracy Caldwell Dyson commented on the significance of the event.

“As much as it’s worth celebrating the first spacewalk with an all-female team, I think many of us are looking forward to it just being normal,” she said. “If it signifies anything, it is to honor the women who came before us, who were skilled and qualified and didn’t get the same opportunities we get today because it is so normal.”

NASA is celebrating Women’s History Month by sharing stories of women at NASA, as well as with weekly livestreams featuring women in science, technology, engineering and math fields who will share their practices, missions and careers. Participants can interact with speakers by submitting questions via email and Twitter at @GSFCEducation.

Read more of our coverage around NASA’s work below:

Maristela Romero is a communications intern at the Partnership.