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Peggy Whitson

Astronauts, Inspirational women, News

NASA Astronauts Complete Historic First All-Woman Spacewalk

21 October, 2019

NASA Astronauts Christina Koch (EV1 - red stripe) and Jessica Meir carrying out the first all-woman spacewalk on Friday 18th October, 2019 and making history [image: NASA TV screenshot]

NASA Astronauts Christina Koch (EV1 – red stripe) and Jessica Meir carrying out the first all-woman spacewalk on Friday 18th October, 2019 and making history [image: NASA TV screenshot]

Soviet Cosmonaut Svetlana Savitskaya became the first woman to carry out a spacewalk on 25th July 1984, almost 35 years ago. Of the more than 500 people who have been to space, around 10% have been female, and until this week spacewalk teams have either been all-male or male-female, with 15 women having ever carried out a spacewalk or EVA (Extravehicular Activity). [For comparison, there have been 213 male spacewalkers)

Rescheduling Spacewalks

However, on Friday 18th October 2019 history was made as NASA Astronauts Jessica Meir and Christina Koch ventured outside of the Quest airlock on the International Space Station and carried out the first all-woman spacewalk, a feat long-overdue. The spacewalking Rocket Women were originally scheduled to carry out a spacewalk on 21st October, however due to the failure of a power controller called a battery charge discharge unit (BCDU) after 19 years of operation onboard the station, their spacewalk was rescheduled to an earlier date and replanned. The BCDU ‘regulates the charge to batteries that collect and distribute power to the station’. Originally this spacewalk was planned to have had the crew install new lithium-ion batteries on the space station, to replace the older nickel-hydrogen batteries, however this task was postponed.

NASA Astronauts Jessica Meir [L] and Christina Koch [R] on 15th October 2019 preparing for their joint spacewalk,  holding the Pistol Grip Tools that they will use to exchange a

NASA Astronauts Jessica Meir [L] and Christina Koch [R] on 15th October 2019 preparing for their joint spacewalk, holding the Pistol Grip Tools that they will use to exchange a failed power controller that collects and regulates power to the International Space Station

During an interview on NASA TV about their upcoming joint spacewalk, NASA Astronaut Christina Koch said, “I think it’s important because of the historical nature of what we’re doing, and that in the past women haven’t always been at the table. It’s wonderful to be contributing to the human spaceflight program at a time when all contributions are being accepted, when everyone has a role, and that, in turn, can lead to an increased chance of success. There are [also] a lot of people that derive motivation from inspiring stories from people that look like them, and I think it’s an important aspect of the story to tell.”

There are [also] a lot of people that derive motivation from inspiring stories from people that look like them, and I think it’s an important aspect of the story to tell.

Friday’s 7 hour 17 minute spacewalk was deemed a success with the battery charge-discharge unit fully powered up and running well.

NASA Astronaut Selection Progress

Both Christina and Jessica were selected in NASA’s 2013 Astronaut Class (nicknamed Eight Balls), the first class to have a 50% gender split, the highest female ratio selected, bringing the percentage of female NASA astronauts in the NASA Astronaut Corps to around 30%. This thirty years after Sally Ride became the first American woman in space. NASA and the global space industry are really looking forward, which is fantastic. The recent 2017 astronaut class has five girls out of a total of twelve astronauts, with two astronauts selected at twenty-nine years old.

Presidential Call

President Trump called the pair during the momentous spacewalk and initially mischaracterized their accomplishment, through announcing that,”This is the first time for a woman outside of the space station.” The spacewalk was in fact the first to be conducted by two women, with women having taken part in 42 spacewalks previously with all male-female teams.

NASA Astronaut Jessica Meir responded (whilst outside the International Space Station, in orbit around the Earth travelling at 17,500 mph),

“We don’t want to take too much credit, because there have been many other female spacewalkers before us. This is just the first time that there have been two women outside at the same time.

And it’s really interesting for us. We’ve talked a lot about it up here. You know, for us, this is really just us doing our job. It’s something we’ve been training for, for six years, and preparing for….And…we were the crew that was tasked with this assignment.

At the same time, we recognize that it is a historic achievement, and we do, of course, want to give credit to all of those that came before us. There has been a long line of female scientists, explorers, engineers, and astronauts, and we have followed in their footsteps to get us where we are today.

We hope that we can provide an inspiration to everybody….that has a dream and has a big dream and that is willing to work hard to make that dream come true — something that all of us that have made our way up here have done all throughout our lives. And I can tell you, the hard work certainly did pay off.”

Spacesuit Sizing

Friday’s spacewalk was the 221st spacewalk in support of the space station’s assembly and maintenance. The first all-female spacewalk was originally meant to occur in March 2019, however due to the unavailability of a prepared and configured Medium Hard Upper Torso (HUT) size of the spacesuit it was postponed. NASA Astronaut Anne McClain, scheduled to take part in this 29th March 2019 spacewalk, found that a Medium Hard Upper Torso of the spacesuit would fit her better after her initial prior spacewalk in a Large size. Astronauts often train in a multitude of sizes and their sizing and preference may change on-orbit as their bodies adapt to a microgravity environment – including spinal elongation and fluid shifts.

NASA Astronauts Jessica Meir (left) and Christina Koch (right) prepare to leave the Quest airlock of the International Space Station and begin the historic first-ever all-female spacewalk. [NASA]

NASA Astronauts Jessica Meir (left) and Christina Koch (right) prepare to leave the Quest airlock of the International Space Station and begin the historic first-ever all-female spacewalk. [NASA]

For the prior 29th March 2019 spacewalk, two spacesuits respectively with a Medium and Large sized Hard Upper Torso were prepared as initially expected. Due to the length of extra time required to prepare and configure an additional spacesuit with a Medium torso for the shortly upcoming spacewalk, an alternative crewmember (Nick Hague) took part in the March spacewalk instead of Anne McClain to protect the safety of the crew and the timing of the mission, a decision recommended by Anne McClain herself.

Artemis – The First Woman On The Moon

History-making NASA Astronaut Christina Koch is set to remain in space for an extended duration mission of 11 months (328 days) to provide researchers the opportunity to observe effects of long-duration spaceflight on a woman to prepare for human missions to the Moon and Mars. Her mission is set to break the record for the longest single spaceflight for a woman, currently held by NASA Astronaut Peggy Whitson who completed a 289 day mission in 2017.

On 8th October, NASA released their new spacesuit designs for future Artemis exploration missions to the Moon, and eventually to Mars, aiming to send the first woman and next man to the Moon by 2024. During a press conference prior to the historic all-woman spacewalk, NASA Adminstrator Jim Bridenstine mentioned the Artemis mission and stated, “We want, of course, to have space available to everybody, and we need to continually demonstrate that space is available to everybody…Of course, another reason this is significant is we are preparing right now to send the next man and the first woman to the moon, so this is all emblematic of that,” he said.

Kristine Davis,  Spacesuit Engineer at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, wears a ground prototype of NASA’s new Exploration Extravehicular Mobility Unit (xEMU). The suit will be worn by first woman and next man as they explore the Moon as part of the agency’s Artemis program.  Photo Credit: (NASA/Joel Kowsky)

Kristine Davis, Spacesuit Engineer at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, wears a ground prototype of NASA’s new Exploration Extravehicular Mobility Unit (xEMU). The suit will be worn by first woman and next man as they explore the Moon as part of the agency’s Artemis program. Photo Credit: (NASA/Joel Kowsky)

The new Exploration EMU (Extravehicular Mobility Unit) spacesuits designed for lunar exploration incorporate inclusive sizing with the ability to accommodate anybody from the “first percentile female to the 99th percentile male” according to NASA Spacesuit Designer Amy Ross.

Astronaut Ground Support

The first all-woman spacewalk was also supported by a team of Rocket Women on the ground (around half of the Mission Control Center personnel according to Twitter’s @jennyonconsole)  including Astronaut Stephanie Wilson, who worked as the Capsule Communicator or CAPCOM during the spacewalk and communicated with the crew from NASA’s Mission Control Center in Houston. Stephanie was selected as a NASA Astronaut in 1996 and previously flew on three shuttle missions (STS-121 in 2006, STS‑120 in 2007 and STS-131 in 2010). She was the second African American woman to go into space after Mae Jemison.  

At the end of the historic first all-woman spacewalk, NASA Astronaut and International Space University graduate Jessica Meir announced, “Today was especially an honor as we also recognize that this is a milestone. It symbolizes exploration by all that dare to dream and work hard to achieve that dream. Not only that, it’s a tribute to those that paved the way for us to be where we are.” [Proceeds from Rocket Women apparel support a scholarship for women to attend the International Space University!]

This month’s spacewalk provided a vision of a future in which an all-woman spacewalk is no longer remarkable, but hopefully common place as the number of women in the astronaut corps globally increases and humanity ventures onwards to explore the Moon and Mars.

Astronauts, Inspirational women

Record-Breaking Rocket Woman NASA Astronaut Peggy Whitson Returns To Earth

3 September, 2017
NASA Astronaut Peggy Whitson During A Spacewalk or EVA (Extra-Vehicular Activity) (Source: NASA)

NASA Astronaut Peggy Whitson During A Spacewalk or EVA (Extra-Vehicular Activity) (Source: NASA)

Rocket Woman NASA Astronaut Peggy Whitson returned to Earth on Sunday 3rd September, after spending 288 days in space, or nearly 10 months – 4 months longer than most astronauts assigned to missions onboard the International Space Station. With today’s culmination of her third long-duration spaceflight, the biochemist has now spent a record breaking 665 days in space!

Peggy Whitson became the first female commander of the International Space Station (ISS) in 2008 and her cumulative time in space now makes her the most experienced NASA Astronaut ever, smashing NASA Astronaut Jeff Williams’ 534 day record and NASA Astronaut Scott Kelly’s 520 days in space. Only seven Russian men remain ahead of Peggy Whitson in the space experience stakes, with time onboard both the ISS & the Mir space station.

During her recent mission she additionally completed her 10th spacewalk, collating over 60 hours of spacewalk time, making her the third most experienced spacewalker ever (and surpassing Sunita Williams’ record as the most experienced female spacewalker). Two astronauts remain ahead of her: Russian Anatoly Solovyev and NASA’s Michael Lopez Alegria. Peggy Whitson is also the oldest woman to fly, at 57.

Peggy Whitson, her crewmate Jack Fisher along with any returning ISS science samples will travel to the European Space Agency’s European Astronaut Centre in Cologne from Kazakhstan for a stopover, before travelling directly to Houston on Sunday evening.

NASA Astronaut Peggy Whitson returning to Earth, after spending 288 days in space, or nearly 10 months (Source: Still image taken from NASA TV)

NASA Astronaut Peggy Whitson returning to Earth, after spending 288 days in space, or nearly 10 months (Source: Still image taken from NASA TV)

Peggy and her colleagues undocked their Soyuz MS-04 spacecraft at 5:58 pm EDT & landed in Kazakhstan at 9:22 pm EDT (7:22 a.m. 3rd Sept, Kazakhstan time). Watch Peggy’s return to Earth again at NASA TV. At Rocket Women we’re excited for Peggy’s return to Earth today!

Inspirational women

Happy Ada Lovelace Day!

16 October, 2012

Ada Lovelace Day (October 16th) is an event designed to raise the profile of female scientists, technologists, engineers and mathematicians. A day to bring attention and celebrate their achievements. Born in 1815, Ada Lovelace is considered to be the world’s first computer programmer! As the daughter of poet Lord Byron and Annabella Milbanke, she was encouraged by her mother as a child and taught math and science. She later worked with Charles Babbage using code-like language on the theoretical development of an “analytics engine”, similar to a computer. This was sadly never built as Ada passed away from cancer. Her notes however were used by Alan Turing in the 1940s for his work on the first modern computers. Starting in 2009, a group called Finding Ada led by Suw Charman-Anderson started a petition to call for a day of blogging about women’s achievements in STEM. Therefore every year on this day, blogs recognize powerful women the world over, paying special attention to women in the tech industry.

So this year I’ll be bringing attention and celebrating the achievements of women in the space industry, specifically those that I believe are inspiring others  and a role model for women internationally. Two women who I think should be brought to attention are Sunita Williams and Dr.Soeyon Yi.

I’ve written about Sunita previously, but Sunita Williams is not just any astronaut, she holds the record for the longest single flight in space for a women and for the longest EVA duration for a female (cumulative). EVA Video

The previous record holder, Peggy Whitson, sent her a message to congratulate her on this accomplishment. She said, “Suni – Congratulations on being the female record holder of the most EVA time. It’s an honour to hand off the record to someone as talented as you.” Peggy ended the message with “You Go Girl!!” Suni replied saying that it was a matter of circumstance, time and place. Adding that, “Anybody could be in these boots.”

Sunita previously served in the Mediterranean, Red Sea, and Persian Gulf in support of Desert Shield as a helicopter pilot. She graduated from the U.S. Naval Test Pilot School in 1993 and continued to perform test flights in a variety of military helicopters. After completing her master’s degree in Engineering Management in 1995, she was stationed on the USS Saipan, where she was selected to be a NASA astronaut. On her career path she has previously said,

“Enjoy what you’re doing, you’ll naturally do well at it, and if [the opportunity to be an astronaut] comes up, it’s just a bonus.”

Whilst onboard the ISS in 1997, Sunita completed the Boston marathon in space using the ISS treadmill. She completed the 26.2 mile race in 4 hours, 23 minutes and 10 seconds. In addition to this, whilst on the ISS this year Sunita completed the Nautica Malibu Triathlon. She ran, biked and “swam” in space simulated using a treadmill, stationary bike and strength-training machine. The swimming portion of the race in microgravity used the onboard Advanced Resistance Exercise Device (ARED) to do resistance activities and weight training.  NASA’s flight director in Mission Control congratulated Sunita for completing the triathlon and emphasised that it was “critically important to understand human physiology and how to keep you strong on orbit”.

Sunita Williams completing a triathlon in space

Sunita Williams completing a triathlon in space [Image copyright: slate.com]

Sunita has also been involved in charity work including cutting her long hair while in orbit to donate to Locks of Love, a non-profit organization that provides hairpieces to children suffering long-term hair loss due to medical issues. Sunita also went on a 5-day visit of India where she met then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, visited her ancestral village and was awarded the Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel Vishwa Pratibha Award by the World Gujarati Society. She’s a truly inspiring individual and has personally inspired me throughout my career.

The second female role model that I want to tell you about is Dr.Soyeon-Yi. Soyeon was South Korea’s first astronaut, selected from among 36,000 applicants and launched to the space station in 2008.

With a background in mechanical engineering and bio-systems, Soyeon currently serves as a senior researcher at the Korean Aerospace Research Institute (KARI) and an adjunct professor at the Korea Advances Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST). Whilst spending 10 days on the ISS, Soyeon conducted 18 scientific experiments, including an experiment that monitored the effects of microgravity on 1,000 fruit flies that she transported into space.  She has also described the experiments to educate students and the younger generations as being the most meaningful and important, her first responsibility being to support the next generation and inspire the people of Korea. Soyeon’s Soyuz capsule, which she shared with NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson and Russian cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko ,also underwent a ballistic re-entry on return to Earth. This entry at a steeper than normal angle, resulted in the capsule landing at a distance of 400 km from the intended landing site. Ballistic re-entry can expose crew members to gravitational forces exceeding 10 times that of Earth gravity as it relies solely on atmospheric drag to slow a spacecraft. The Soyuz nominal re-entry usually allows for some aerodynamic lift during re-entry, which provides a  shallower and slower descent. Luckily the crew were safe and located 20-minutes post-landing.

Soyeon also carried out the International Space University (ISU) Space Studies Program (SSP) at NASA Ames Research  Centre in 2009. I was lucky enough to meet her there whilst working as a Teaching Associate for the Physical Sciences department. She truly inspired each and every person involved in the program with her ambition and accomplishments.

Dr.Soyeon-Yi with myself and other ISU SSP09 Teaching Associates

Dr.Soyeon-Yi with myself and other ISU SSP09 Teaching Associates