It was in 1963 that Valentina Tereshkova, a Russian cosmonaut, became the first woman to enter space as part of the Soviet Vostok 6 mission. No other woman ventured into space until astronaut Sally Ride launched with the Seventh Space Shuttle Mission in 1983, and there were hardly jobs available for ladies in space exploration programmes. If either woman had been asked at that time about the possibility of the world ever witnessing the launch of a spacecraft with only women in it, they would have probably dismissed the enquiry with a shrug and a derisive laugh.
Nearly thirty-six years after Ms. Ride took off in that space shuttle, a move that was previously inconceivable is now about to materialise.
For the first time in history, an all-female crew will conduct a spacewalk at the International Space Station, according to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).
As part of Expedition 59, NASA astronauts Anne McClain and Christina Koch will carry out the spacewalk on March 29. They'll be supported on the ground by Canadian Space Agency flight controller Kristen Facciol, who will be on the console at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston.
It was Facciol herself who first tweeted the announcement on March 1, saying:
"I just found out that I'll be on console providing support for the FIRST ALL FEMALE SPACEWALK with @AstroAnnimal and @Astro_Christina and I can not contain my excitement!!!! #WomenInSTEM #WomenInEngineering #WomenInSpace."
"As currently scheduled, the March 29 spacewalk will be the first with only women," NASA spokeswoman Stephanie Schierholz said on Wednesday March 6. "It is the second in a series of three planned spacewalks. Anne also will join Nick Hague for the March 22 spacewalk. And, of course, assignments and schedules could always change."
"It was not orchestrated to be this way; these spacewalks were originally scheduled to take place in the fall," Schierholz added. "In addition to the two female spacewalkers, the Lead Flight Director is Mary Lawrence, and Jackie Kagey (also a woman), is the lead EVA (spacewalk) flight controller."
Both McClain and Koch were part of the 2013 astronaut class, half of which were women, and came from the second largest number of applications NASA ever has received -- more than 6,100. The most recent class of flight directors was also 50% women, NASA said.
McClain is currently on the ISS as part of Expedition 58, while Koch is set to blast off on March 14 to reach the station for Expedition 59 and 60 along with Cmdr. Alexey Ovchinin and Flight Engineer Nick Hague. This is going to be the first time in space for McClain and the first spaceflight for Koch.
Spacewalks are held for a number of different reasons, according to NASA, including doing work outside a spacecraft, conducting science experiments and testing new equipment. Astronauts also conduct spacewalks to fix satellites or spacecraft that are already in space, instead of having them brought back to Earth to fix.
This milestone is still days away, but the fact that it has even been scheduled is no mean feat. Significant progress has been made since the early 1960s when women were not eligible to be astronauts even after undergoing and passing the selection progress, and these strides are commendable. Who knows, one day we could have a spacecraft featuring an all-African crew, but then we would have to make our satellites work and fix our power supply first.
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