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Astronauts say all-female spacewalk a sign of the times at NASA

NASA holds first all-female spacewalk

For Christina Koch and Jessica Meir, floating outside the International Space Station in the first all-female spacewalk Friday was as much about sharing a sublime experience with a best friend as it was about making history in the once male-only world of space flight, the astronauts said Monday.

"For me, since it was my first spacewalk in general, it was an overwhelming and incredible feeling," Meir said in space-to-ground news conference. "The fact that I did it with another woman, and actually with my close friend and colleague Christina, really made it even more special."

Meir and Koch, who chalked up her fourth spacewalk Friday, were selected in the same astronaut class, the first made up of 50% men and 50% women. For the past six years, the two classmates have trained together, "in very, very close proximity for the last two years," Meir said.

"We know each other very well, we understand each other, I think we make a great team," she said. "That all went into having a successful and productive and fairly uneventful spacewalk.

"But I think we do recognize it is a historical achievement, it does carry a lot of weight to other people. It really does mean a great deal to share this experience together and hopefully, it does inspire and educate those that will follow us."

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NASA astronaut Christina Koch (right) poses with fellow Expedition 61 Flight Engineer Jessica Meir who is inside a U.S. spacesuit for a fit check on Oct. 12, 2019. The duo performed their first spacewalk together Oct. 18 to replace a failed power controller on the International Space Station. NASA

The space station crew is in the process of upgrading batteries in the lab's solar power system. After two spacewalks by Koch and Drew Morgan, flight controllers discovered a critical battery controller had failed, knocking one newly installed lithium-ion battery off line.

Instead of pressing ahead with battery installation work, NASA managers opted to replace the battery controller first. Meir and Koch, who already were on tap for an all-female spacewalk, were tasked with the repair job last Friday. They removed the faulty unit and installed a spare with no problem, and managed to squeeze in a few get-ahead tasks before calling it a day.

NASA originally planned a spacewalk by Koch and astronaut Anne McClain last March, but the excursion was called off because of a spacesuit sizing problem. The station now is equipped with suits that can be sized to fit any of the four NASA-sponsored astronauts currently on board.

Asked if she felt any pressure given the heightened interest in the all-female spacewalk, Koch said "if anything, it just added to the moment, it added to the amazing experience of being able to contribute to this program in that way."

"I wouldn't call it a weight (on our shoulders), I would call it the opposite, something uplifting, something that allowed us to be our best, to bring our best to that day and to recognize that we have a gift and an opportunity to potentially inspire the future."

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NASA astronaut Jessica Meir waves at the camera during a spacewalk with fellow NASA astronaut Christina Koch on Oct. 18, 2019. NASA

Meir agreed, saying she felt no additional pressure.

"I think first of all, we're all held to the same standard at NASA," she said. "From the very beginning of our training, we were all trained and treated the same way. So when I went out the door for the first time, I was thinking about doing my first spacewalk, I wasn't thinking was I going out the door with a man or with a woman, that really didn't matter to me.

"Because everybody up here right now has been held to that same standard and has received the same training," she added. "So for me, I felt that it really didn't make a difference."

History's first spacewalk was carried out by Soviet cosmonaut Alexei Leonov in 1965. Another Russian, Svetlana Savitskaya, became the first woman to walk in space in 1984. The first American woman, NASA astronaut Kathryn Sullivan, followed suit later that same year.

Asked why it took 35 years for a two-woman spacewalk to happen, Meir cited a combination of factors, from the original all-male astronaut corps, spacesuits that were designed in the 1970s to fit a limited range of body sizes and the pace of broad cultural changes.

"Where we are is representative of the change we're seeing now, we're seeing more females, we're seeing more diversity in all of the STEM fields, and that's why I think we're seeing more female astronauts now and why we have this first female spacewalk at this time," Meir said.

"In terms of spacewalking in general, the legacy in which our suits were developed, the technology of the spacesuits that we're still wearing today was actually developed in the '70s. And the astronaut population did look a little bit different back then."

Decisions made in the '70s, she said, carried over "for decades to come."

"So that's really why we're in the situation we are right now when people are thinking, well, how come these spacesuits don't fit women or other things you've read about in the press. We are moving in the right direction in that regard. ... The best part of the news is that our new suit, which a woman will wear on the surface of the moon, was actually designed to fit smaller size people. ... so I think we are trending in the right direction."

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine says NASA will send "the first woman and the next man" to the surface of the moon in the 2024 time frame under the agency's new Artemis program

Meir, who wrote in her high school yearbook that she hoped to one day walk in space, said "I think another dream would be to go to the moon."

"That's always the image I had from the very first drawing I did when I said I wanted to be an astronaut in the first grade, was standing on the surface of the moon. So maybe I'll make that my new dream."

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