On March 29, if all goes according to plan, astronauts Anne McClain and Christina Koch will exit the International Space Station to conduct work outside the spacecraft—marking the first time in history that a spacewalk has been conducted by an all-female crew, reports Shaiann Frazier of NBC News.
Women will also be performing crucial work on the ground; Mary Lawrence and Kristen Facciol are due to serve as lead flight director and lead spacewalk flight controller, respectively, supporting McClain and Koch from NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. It’s a fitting milestone for Women’s History Month, though NASA spokeswoman Stephanie Schierholz tells CNN’s Gianluca Mezzofiore that it “was not orchestrated to be this way” and “assignments and schedules could always change.”
A spacewalk, also known as “extravehicular activity” (EVA), is a broad term that applies to any time an astronaut exits a vehicle while in space. According to NASA, astronauts conduct spacewalks for a number of reasons: to carry out experiments in space, to test new equipment, or to repair satellites and spacecraft. It is not yet clear what tasks McClain and Koch will be performing during their spacewalk, which is expected to last around seven hours, according to Frazier.
The first ever spacewalk was carried out by Alexei Leonov in March 1965, and the first woman to take part in a spacewalk was Russian cosmonaut Svetlana Savitskaya, who performed welding experiments outside the Salyut 7 space station on July 25, 1984. Though women make up a growing number of NASA astronauts, women continue to be underrepresented in the space travel field. And for the most part, Frazier notes, “spacewalks have been ... conducted by male astronauts, with the help of some female crewmembers.”
The two women set to make space history on March 29 were both part of NASA’s 2013 astronaut class. McClain, an aerospace engineer and a senior army aviator, has been on board the International Space Station since December 2018. She’s due to take part in another spacewalk on March 22, alongside astronaut Nick Hague. Koch, who has a background in electrical engineering and physics, will launch into space on March 14 and join McClain at the ISS.
Earlier this month, Kristen Facciol, the lead flight controller, tweeted her excitement about supporting the first all-female spacewalk. But, she added in another tweet, “here’s hoping this will be the norm one day!”