Traversing the New Frontier: The First 50 Years of Spacewalking (Part 6)

Terry Virts is pictured working on cable-routing activities in support of the future International Docking Adapters (IDAs) during EVA-29 on 21 February 2015. This was the first spacewalk in the 50th anniversary year since Alexei Leonov's pioneering EVA. Photo Credit: NASA
Terry Virts is pictured working on cable-routing activities in support of the future International Docking Adapters (IDAs) during EVA-29 on 21 February 2015. This was the first spacewalk in the 50th anniversary year since Alexei Leonov’s pioneering EVA. Photo Credit: NASA

Less than a month ago, on 1 March 2015, U.S. astronauts Barry “Butch” Wilmore and Terry Virts concluded a spectacular series of three EVAs to prepare the International Space Station (ISS) for its most significant phase of expansion and relocation of hardware since the end of the shuttle era. They laid 340 feet (103 meters) of cables in support of the arrival of two International Docking Adapters (IDAs)—critical for NASA’s future Commercial Crew aspirations—as well as a further 400 feet (122 meters) of cables for the Common Communications for Visiting Vehicles (C2V2) architecture and prepared two berthing ports on the Tranquility node for use later in 2015. In concluding the last of these EVAs, Wilmore and Virts completed the 187th spacewalk performed by astronauts and cosmonauts from the United States, Russia, Canada, France, Japan, Germany, Sweden, and Italy since December 1998 to assemble and maintain the largest and most complex engineering achievement in human history. It is a mammoth effort which is expected to continue this year and throughout the station’s operational lifetime.

As described in yesterday’s latest instalment of the history of 50 years of spacewalking, several shuttle crews in the early 1990s had performed EVA to demonstrate tools, technologies, and methods for building and maintaining Space Station Freedom, and, following its cancellation, the new ISS. All of this work bore fruit on the evening of 7 December 1998, when spacewalkers Jerry Ross and Jim Newman departed Endeavour’s airlock to begin the first EVA of the new era. Only days earlier, STS-88 Commander Bob Cabana—today’s Director of the Kennedy Space Center (KSC)—had overseen the successful linkage of the U.S. Unity node and the Russian-built Zarya control module, and it was the task of Ross and Newman to establish electrical and other connections.

Since their assignment to STS-88, more than two years earlier, in August 1996, the spacewalkers had undertaken about 540 hours of EVA training, including 240 hours underwater in the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory (NBL) at the Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, Texas. Ross and Newman got the ISS era off to a spectacular start as they pushed ahead with their tasks. With Ross riding the end of the shuttle’s Canadian-built Remote Manipulator System (RMS) mechanical arm, he worked swiftly to install mating plugs and jumper cables to route power through Unity, whilst Newman released launch locks from wiring along the exterior of the Pressurized Mating Adapter (PMA)-2. In total, the two men mated 40 power and data cables and connectors, running the entire length of the Unity-Zarya stack, as well as EVA handrails and tools to aid future spacewalkers. This allowed Unity’s systems to be brought online for the first time, in what NASA described as “perfect electrical continuity between the two modules.”

When Jerry Ross closed the airlock for the final time on Mission 61B in late 1985, he could hardly have imagined that he would be the next astronaut to venture outside on the United States' next EVA on STS-37. Photo Credit: NASA
When Jerry Ross closed the airlock for the final time on Mission 61B in late 1985, he could hardly have imagined that he would be the next astronaut to venture outside on the United States’ next EVA on STS-37. Photo Credit: NASA

Even on this very first EVA of the ISS era, records were being set, as Ross eclipsed fellow astronaut Tom Akers to become the most experienced U.S. spacewalker. By the time STS-88 returned to Earth, two more EVAs would have been performed, successfully establishing a pair of “early” S-band antennas for systems monitoring and basic videoconferencing, removing launch restraint pins, and freeing a jammed Russian antenna.

Of course, Ross and Newman’s work outside Zarya and Unity was not the first occasion on which U.S. astronauts had spacewalked to maintain a space station. Routine maintenance and urgent repairs had been conducted by the three Skylab crews in 1973-1974—as detailed in a recent article in this AmericaSpace series of articles—and a range of tasks had been conducted by Soviet and later Russian cosmonauts outside the Salyut 6 and 7 and Mir space stations, between 1977 and  2000. One of the most urgent tasks came in the summer of 1985, when a complete loss of telemetry downlink was experienced from Salyut 7 and it entered “free drift.” As circumstances transpired, all eight of its batteries had run down and a telemetry glitch prevented flight controllers from detecting the problem; moreover, the station automatically shut down all of its systems in response and caused the broken downlink. In June, cosmonauts Vladimir Dzhanibekov and Viktor Savinykh flew to the dead Salyut 7 and over the course of several weeks nursed it back to life in one of the most hazardous missions ever attempted. During their mission, they performed a single EVA to augment the station’s solar arrays. It was the final spacewalk performed in support of Salyut 7.

The following year, 1986, saw the launch of the “base block” of Mir, which would form the core of a modular space station which would endure until the dawn of the present century. Over the course of its lifetime, Mir played host to no fewer than 83 EVAs by representatives of four sovereign nations—Russia, France, Germany, and the United States—of which two, in March 1996 and October 1997, were executed whilst a shuttle was in residence. Many of these spacewalks involved routine maintenance, the repair of damaged equipment, and the installation and removal of scientific experiments, although several stand out for attention, in terms of their international flavor.

Jerry Ross, pictured during STS-88, the first shuttle mission of the International Space Station (ISS) era. Photo Credit: NASA
Jerry Ross, pictured during STS-88, the first shuttle mission of the International Space Station (ISS) era. Photo Credit: NASA

In December 1988, Frenchman Jean-Loup Chrétien became the first non-Russian and non-U.S. citizen in history to embark on an EVA. One of the tasks of Chrétien and his Soviet crewmate, cosmonaut Aleksandr Volkov, was the installation of the French ERA experiment on Mir’s exterior, as part of demonstrations of the construction of rigid structures in microgravity. “You forget about your space suit very quickly,” Chrétien recalled later, “so you’re really in the impression that you are free floating with nothing … just swimming. It was fascinating.” Orbital darkness did not bother him: the lights on his helmet and Earth’s natural albedo provided an eerie illumination of their own. Aged 50, the Frenchman also secured a record as the world’s oldest spacewalker, an accolade he would hold until 1993.

More than a year elapsed before Mir next saw a series of EVAs, and these, in January and February 1990, featuring cosmonauts Aleksandr Viktorenko and Aleksandr Serebrov, involved the test of the Soviet Union’s Sredstvo Peredvizheniy Kosmonavtov (SPK, the “Cosmonaut Manoeuvring Equipment”). Nicknamed “The Space Motorcycle,” this device was a close analog to Martin Marietta’s Manned Maneuvering Unit (MMU)—employed first by Bruce McCandless in February 1984 and later on two subsequent shuttle missions as part of efforts to retrieve and repair errant satellites—and took the form of a jet-powered backpack for untethered operations close to Mir. On its first test, Serebrov piloted the SPK to a peak distance of about 200 feet (60 meters), then returned, because the station could not maneuver to recover him in the event of a failure. During a subsequent EVA, Viktorenko performed an aerobatic “roll,” with the intention that it may be used for future inspections of Mir. However, it was never used again.

Later in 1990, another EVA became necessary, not because of an issue pertaining to Mir, but to the Soyuz TM-9 spacecraft of cosmonauts Anatoli Solovyov and Aleksandr Balandin. Following their launch in February, it became clear that three of their descent module’s eight thermal insulation blankets had become detached, threatening to obstruct critical sensors during re-entry. In July, the cosmonauts performed a spacewalk, during which they successfully tended to the blankets, but inadvertently violated an EVA egress procedure from the Kvant-2 module airlock, which damaged the hinges around the circumference of the hatch. The error became evident when Solovyov and Balandin came to return inside Mir, and the hatch refused to close properly, forcing them to leave it slightly ajar and use Kvant-2’s inner compartment as a contingency airlock. By the time they returned inside the station, the cosmonauts had spent seven hours and 16 minutes in vacuum, a new Soviet EVA record.

Jean-Loup Chretien practices his maneuvers, during training to become France's first spacewalker. Photo Credit: Joachim Becker/
Jean-Loup Chretien practices his maneuvers, during training to become France’s first spacewalker. Photo Credit: Joachim Becker/

The damage required another EVA and Solovyov and Balandin quickly discovered the extent of the damage, as television footage revealed that one of the airlock hinges had been deformed. The cosmonauts managed to force it shut, then repressurised the airlock, although a more permanent repair was acutely necessary. In October, another crew—Gennadi Manakov and Gennadi Strekalov, the latter of whom became oldest Russian spacewalker at that time, aged 50—tried and failed to repair the hatch, until it was eventually fixed and the deformed hinge replaced by Viktor Afanasyev and Musa Manarov in January 1991.

If Jean-Loup Chrétien became the first Frenchman to perform an EVA, Germany was not far behind and Thomas Reiter performed no fewer than two spacewalks in October 1995 and February 1996, during the course of his six-month stay aboard Mir. Originally, just a single EVA was planned, but agreements were reached whereby Reiter would remain aboard the station for an extra six weeks and perform a second excursion.

The following year, 1997, saw the first joint U.S.-Russian EVA, wearing Russian suits, on 29 April and the first joint U.S.-Russian EVA, clad in U.S. suits, on 1 October. The former was performed by NASA astronaut Jerry Linenger and cosmonaut Vasili Tsibliyev and became the first occasion in history that an American had spacewalked outside a non-American spacecraft, wearing a non-American suit, paired with a non-American partner. “A spacewalk on the surface of a sprawling space station has a different flavour than one conducted inside the cargo bay of the Space Shuttle,” wrote Linenger in one of his letters to his son, John. He felt like a scuba-diver, but could not dispel the overwhelming sense that he was falling, and the sensation of tremendous orbital velocity was more apparent than it had been from inside Mir. “Crawling, slithering, gripping, reaching. You are not falling from the cliff; the whole cliff is falling and you are on it. You convince yourself that it is okay for the cliff and yourself on the cliff to be falling, because when you look out you see no bottom. You just fall and fall and fall. The Sun sets swiftly. Blackness. Not merely dark, but absolutely black. You see nothing.”

During the summer of 1997, near-catastrophe hit Mir when the station suffered a collision with an incoming Progress cargo craft, which required major juggling of future U.S. resident crew members, with Wendy Lawrence dropped in favor of Dave Wolf, in order to support EVA operations. In September, cosmonaut Anatoli Solovyov—who today holds the record for having spent more time spacewalking than any other human being, with a cumulative total of over 82 hours—and NASA astronaut Mike Foale performed an EVA in a fruitless attempt to identify the source of the puncture in Mir’s hull.

Linenger (with blue stripes on the legs of his Orlan-M suit) and Tsibliyev participate in the first joint U.S.-Russian EVA on 29 April 1997. Photo Credit: NASA
Linenger (with blue stripes on the legs of his Orlan-M suit) and Tsibliyev participate in the first joint U.S.-Russian EVA on 29 April 1997. Photo Credit: NASA

Finally, on 1 October, during the STS-86 mission to Mir, U.S. astronaut Scott Parazynski and Russian cosmonaut Vladimir Titov performed a spacewalk outside shuttle Atlantis. This marked the first occasion that a Russian had spacewalked outside a non-Russian spacecraft, wearing a non-Russian suit, as well as making Titov the first non-U.S. shuttle spacewalker. Eight weeks later, on STS-87, Japanese astronaut Takao Doi became the second, and by the end of the 30-year shuttle era in July 2011 spacewalkers from Switzerland, Canada, France, Germany, and Sweden had done likewise. Notably, in December 1999, Swiss astronaut Claude Nicollier became the European Space Agency (ESA) spacefarer to perform an EVA from the shuttle, during the STS-103 Hubble Space Telescope (HST) servicing mission.

By the dawn of the present millennium, the ISS was as-yet unoccupied by a long-duration crew, although spacewalking would prove pivotal during the construction and maintenance of the international outpost. Although EVAs were chiefly conducted by Russian cosmonauts and U.S. astronauts, many representatives of the International Partners contributed their own spacewalking expertise. In April 2001, Canada’s Chris Hadfield led a pair of EVAs with Scott Parazynski to install his nation’s 57.7-foot-long (17.6-meter) Canadarm2 robotic arm onto the space station. France’s Philippe Perrin participated in three spacewalks in June 2002, Japan’s Soichi Noguchi embarked on three excursions during the STS-114 Return to Flight mission—the first post-Columbia shuttle voyage—in July 2005, Sweden’s Christer Fuglesang made a total of five EVAs on two shuttle missions in December 2006 and August 2009, and Germany’s Hans Schlegel assisted with the installation of the Columbus laboratory module in February 2008. The most recent nation to boast its own spacewalker was Italy, whose astronaut Luca Parmitano performed a pair of EVAs in July 2013, the second of which ended sooner than planned, due to water intrusion into his helmet.

Despite the steady expansion of spacewalking to other nations, until relatively recently only the United States and Russia carried the capability to conduct EVA. That monopoly ended in September 2008, when Chinese crew member Zhai Zhigang performed a 22-minute spacewalk outside his Shenzhou 7 spacecraft. His comrade, Liu Boming, also embarked on a Stand-Up EVA (SEVA) to hand him a Chinese flag. Although China has yet to perform a second EVA, the achievement made the world’s most populous nation the third to demonstrate a home-grown capability to execute spacewalks in its own suits, with its own citizens and from its own spacecraft.

Susan Helms, pictured during the world's longest EVA on 11 March 2001. Photo Credit: NASA
Susan Helms, pictured during the world’s longest EVA on 11 March 2001. Photo Credit: NASA

Spacewalking records have fallen like ninepins over the past five decades and it is truly remarkable how much has been achieved—from Alexei Leonov’s and Ed White’s handful of minutes to the multiple-hour excursions performed in 2015 outside the ISS—in a relatively short span of recorded history. From walking on the Moon to operating in cislunar space and from spacewalking under the belly of the shuttle to spacewalking close to the ISS’s powerful solar arrays to effect repairs, our species’ capabilities have dramatically grown. It is ironic that the three least experienced spacewalkers on the current list of 211 men and women who have performed EVA are Leonov, White, and Zhai, the first representatives of their respective nations ever to step into the void.

At the opposing end of the spectrum, Russia’s Anatoli Solovyov sits securely as the most experienced spacewalker of all time, with more than 82 cumulative hours, spread across 16 EVAs. Mike Lopez-Alegria holds first place for the United States, with 67 hours in 10 excursions from both the shuttle and the ISS, whilst Sweden’s Christer Fuglesang is the most experienced non-U.S. and non-Russian spacewalker, with more than 31 hours in five EVAs. Sitting progressively lower on the list, but still holding national records, Aki Hoshide is Japan’s most seasoned spacewalker, with 21 hours in three EVAs, Philippe Perrin holds the record for France, with 19.5 hours in three EVAs, and Thomas Reiter is Germany’s most experienced spacewalker, with 14 hours in three EVAs. For Canada, Dave Williams is the national record-holder, with almost 18 hours in three EVAs, whilst Luca Parmitano—by default—holds the crown for Italy, with just under eight hours in two EVAs.

Although it was not until the flight of Svetlana Savitskaya in July 1984 that women first experienced spacewalking, female astronauts and cosmonauts from Russia and the United States have produced their own records. Suni Williams—a veteran of two missions, most recently in command of Expedition 33 in the fall of 2012—holds the empirical crown for women, having spent a total of almost 51 hours outside the ISS during seven EVAs. On the Russian side, only Savitskaya has ever performed a spacewalk and has accrued 3.5 hours in the vacuum of space.

Germany's Thomas Reiter performed two EVAs outside Mir in October 1995 and February 1996. This made Germany the third sovereign nation, after Russia, the United States and France, to boast a spacewalker. Photo Credit: Joachim Becker/
Germany’s Thomas Reiter performed two EVAs outside Mir in October 1995 and February 1996. This made Germany the third sovereign nation, after Russia, the United States and France, to boast a spacewalker. Photo Credit: Joachim Becker/

Aside from gender and nationality, the world’s longest EVA was performed outside the ISS on 11 March 2001 by U.S. astronauts Jim Voss and Susan Helms, during the docked phase of shuttle mission STS-102. The duo spent eight hours and 56 minutes in vacuum, thereby eclipsing the previous record of eight hours and 29 minutes, set during the dramatic three-person Intelsat 603 retrieval EVA in May 1992. Voss and Helms’ EVA was originally scheduled to run for six hours and ten minutes, but the spacewalkers were initially delayed by when a Portable Foot Restraint (PFR) Attachment Device (PAD) became untethered. This required Voss to retrieve a spare, after which the duo pressed on with their principal task of readying Pressurized Mating Adapter (PMA)-3 for its robotic relocation from the Earth-facing (or “nadir”) port of the Unity node to its port-side interface, in preparation for the berthing of the Leonardo Multi-Purpose Logistics Module (MPLM).

Six hours and 43 minutes into the EVA, Voss and Helms returned to the airlock and hooked their suits’ life-support utilities to the shuttle’s power and oxygen supply, in order to assist with the PMA-3 relocation, if needed. The latter task required longer than expected to complete and correspondingly stretched out the EVA to its marathon length. At the opposite extreme, the shortest EVA of all time is a more difficult one to judge. Alexei Leonov—the world’s first spacewalker—spent 12 minutes in vacuum in March 1965, although several Gemini astronauts opened the hatch of their spacecraft to discard unneeded equipment, as did each of the Apollo lunar landing crews, for a couple of minutes apiece.

Age has also proven little of a barrier for spacewalkers, with Russian cosmonaut Pavel Vinogradov the current record-holder for the upper limit, having performed an EVA in April 2013, aged 59. In doing so, he eclipsed the previous record-holder, U.S. astronaut Story Musgrave, who had been 58 years old when he led the spacewalks which serviced the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) in December 1993. The oldest female spacewalker was Linda Godwin, who was 49 years old at the time of her final career EVA on STS-108 in December 2001. At the lower limit, Alexei Leonov himself was just 30 years old at the time of his pioneering EVA and consequently holds the record for the world’s youngest spacewalker. And the youngest female spacewalker was America’s first woman to walk in space, Kathy Sullivan, who turned 33 just two days before launching aboard Challenger on Mission 41G in October 1984.

With three EVAs performed thus far in 2015, and several more planned from both the U.S. Orbital Segment (USOS) and the Russian Orbital Segment (ROS), later this year, the requirements and demands will continue to grow. In June, cosmonauts Gennadi Padalka and Mikhail Kornienko—who arrived on Friday night at the ISS, following a blazing launch aboard Soyuz TMA-16M—will perform an EVA, with up to four U.S. EVAs due to follow in July, October, and December, featuring astronauts Scott Kelly, Kjell Lindgren, and Tim Kopra. These will serve to prepare the space station for its next phase of expansion.


This is part of a series of history articles, which will appear each weekend, barring any major news stories. Next week’s article will focus on the 30th anniversary of Mission 51D in April 1985, which featured the first contingency spacewalk of the shuttle era.



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