Friday’s first all-female spacewalk is coming later than expected, and also earlier than expected.
It’s later, because the original plan for the first scheduled pairing of two spacewalking women had to be called off in March when NASA decided they couldn’t get two medium-size spacesuit torsos ready on schedule. Instead, the spacewalk lineup was shuffled to have the women working alongside male crewmates.
From a different perspective, the team-up of spacewalkers Christina Koch and Jessica Meir is coming nearly a week earlier than planned, due to an urgent problem on the International Space Station.
The space station’s crew is in the midst of a battery replacement campaign that requires five spacewalks to complete. Two spacewalks have already been done, and Koch and Meir were scheduled to take their turn on Oct. 21.
But just a few days ago, mission managers determined that a battery charge-discharge unit, or BCDU, wasn’t working properly with a new set of batteries.
The BCDUs regulate the amount of electrical charge that the station’s solar arrays put into the power system’s batteries. NASA says the unit’s failure after 19 years of operation doesn’t immediately affect station operations or crew safety, but it does prevent the new batteries from providing the expected increase in power.
A similar BCDU failure occurred in April, and the station is now down to only three or four spares. Mission managers are anxious to resolve the latest glitch and figure out what the problem is.
“It’s absolutely a concern at this point, when you don’t know what’s going on,” Kenny Todd, NASA’s manager of space station operations and integration, told reporters when the latest schedule change was announced. “We’re still scratching our heads looking at the data.”
The need to fix the glitch led NASA to reshuffle the schedule once again — and as a result, revise the plan for making space history.
Women have been doing spacewalks ever since Soviet cosmonaut Svetlana Savitskaya ventured outside the Salyut 7 space station in 1984, followed months later by NASA shuttle astronaut Kathryn Sullivan’s outing. But those spacewalkers, and all of the women who followed in their footsteps, did their work in the company of men. Friday’s spacewalk will finally break that precedent.
Megan McArthur, deputy chief of NASA’s astronaut office, said the milestone merely reflects how the astronaut corps has evolved from its all-male beginnings.
“It will be an exciting event, something we will reflect on certainly after the fact,” she said. “But in truth, in terms of looking at the workload that we have coming forward, this was the right crew to send out to do this set of tasks. All of our crew members are completely qualified to do this, and the fact that it will be two women just is a reflection of the fact that we have so many capable, qualified women in the office.”
NASA will carry streaming-video coverage of spacewalk activities beginning at 6:30 a.m. ET (3:30 a.m. PT) Friday.
NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine and Ken Bowersox, a former astronaut who’s been serving as the acting associate administrator for human exploration and operations, will talk about the milestone during a media teleconference starting at 7:15 a.m. ET (4:15 a.m. PT).
The spacewalk itself is due to start around 7:50 a.m. ET (4:50 a.m. PT) and last about five and a half hours.
NASA had planned to conduct three more battery-replacement spacewalks this month, but they’ve been put on hold pending the results of Friday’s operation. Mission managers plan to have the faulty battery charge-discharge unit brought back down to Earth for troubleshooting.
Check back for updates as the spacewalk proceeds, and watch the video coverage below.