As the world observes International Women’s Day today (Friday, 8 March), we are reminded not only of the past accomplishments of female spacefarers—including Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space; Svetlana Savitskaya, the first woman to perform a spacewalk; Eileen Collins, the first woman to command a space mission; and Peggy Whitson, the first woman to lead a space station expedition—but of the promise of future achievements, as-yet unrealized.
In the coming weeks, NASA plans three periods of Extravehicular Activity (EVA) outside the International Space Station (ISS), involving four first-time spacewalkers from the United States and Canada. On the second of those three EVAs, on 29 March, U.S. astronauts Anne McClain and Christina Koch will make history by performing the first-ever all-female spacewalk. And according to NASA, Koch may remain aboard the station to achieve the second-longest single mission ever performed by a woman.
All told, just 62 women from the United States, Russia, Canada, Italy, France, Japan, the United Kingdom, South Korea and China have achieved Earth-orbital flight between Tereshkova’s pioneering mission on Vostok 6 in June 1963 and the launch of NASA’s Anne McClain aboard Soyuz MS-11 last December. Fewer still have performed spacewalks, with a mere 12 women to date—out of a total of more than 200 astronauts—having departed their orbital spacecraft, clad in pressurized suits, to work in near-total vacuum.
Yet the 37 EVAs conducted between July 1984 and, most recently, May 2017, which have included female spacewalkers, have been responsible for some of the most remarkable accomplishments in human exploration of the cosmos.
The Soviet Union’s Svetlana Savitskaya was the first woman spacewalker, spending 3.5 hours working outside the Salyut 7 space station in July 1984, after which NASA’s Kathy Sullivan did likewise outside shuttle Challenger the following October. Savitskaya evaluated a new space-welding tool, whilst Sullivan trialed an in-space refueling mechanism.
The first woman to make two EVAs was also the first woman to make three—Kathy Thornton, who supported Space Station Freedom construction tests on STS-49 in May 1992, then became the only female spacewalker to work on the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) during STS-61 in December 1993—and Linda Godwin stands alone as the only woman to spacewalk outside two discrete space stations, namely Mir and the ISS.
Susan Helms was a participant on the longest EVA ever conducted—a marathon, eight-hour-and-56-minute excursion, back in March 2001—whilst the current incumbent record-holder is former NASA Chief Astronaut Peggy Whitson, who has totaled 60 hours and 21 minutes in vacuum, across ten EVAs between August 2002 and May 2017. This positions her fourth on the list of most experienced spacewalkers in the world, sitting just behind seasoned Russian heavyweight Anatoli Solovyov and NASA veterans Mike Lopez-Alegria and Drew Feustel.
For several years, an element of unspoken lighthearted competition existed between Whitson and fellow NASA astronaut Suni Williams, as the mantle of most experienced female spacewalker pingponged between them. Williams has presently logged over 50 hours across her seven EVAs, whilst five other women—Tammy Jernigan, Heidemarie Stefanyshyn-Piper, Nicole Stott, Tracy Caldwell-Dyson and Kate Rubins—have spacewalked outside the ISS. Of those, Jernigan was the first woman to spacewalk outside the ISS, way back in May 1999.
Several of those female spacewalkers have adopted the leadership mantle on their EVAs, serving as “EV1”, although at no point in history has an all-female spacewalk ever taken place. That will occur for the first time on 29 March, when incumbent Expedition 58 astronaut Anne McClain and her soon-to-be-launched crewmate Christina Koch step outside the ISS to continue work to replace a set of 12 aging nickel-hydrogen batteries in Power Channels 2A and 4A in the station’s P-4 truss with six smaller and more capable lithium-ion ones.
Current plans—outlined by NASA last month—call for McClain and Nick Hague to perform a spacewalk on 22 March to begin the work, after which McClain and Koch will make the second EVA a week later and Hague and Canadian astronaut David Saint-Jacques will venture outside on 8 April to install truss jumpers and additional ethernet cable connections. For both of her EVAs, McClain will serve as EV1.
Much speculation has abounded in recent months about the return schedule for various U.S. and Russian crew members, later this year, particularly in light of the fact that the first United Arab Emirates (UAE) spacefarer is expected to fly a short-duration mission of around ten days aboard Soyuz MS-15 in September. To free up a seat aboard Soyuz MS-12 for his return to Earth, it has been suggested that a Soyuz MS-12 crew member may enjoy a longer than nominal stay aboard the ISS. In comments provided to AmericaSpace, NASA’s Rob Navias explained definitively that “Hague returns to Earth in October”.
Launching alongside the UAE spaceflight participant are expected to be Russian cosmonaut Oleg Skripochka—who will rejoin his one-time crewmate Christina Koch—and former NASA Chief Astronaut Chris Cassidy, who will remain aboard the space station until late spring 2020. According to Mr. Navias, “we expect Koch to remain on-board ISS” beyond October, with Ovchinin and Hague joining the UAE astronaut aboard Soyuz MS-12 for the return to Earth on 3 October. Asked if Koch would return on Soyuz MS-13 in December, or remain aboard even longer, returning on Soyuz MS-15 in April 2020, Mr. Navias advised that “the Flight Program is under review”. In either case, a landing in December 2019 or later will provide Koch with a minimum-duration mission of nine months aboard the ISS, the second-longest duration ever achieved by a female spacefarer on a single mission, after Peggy Whitson.