All-Female Spacewalk Makes History — Finally : Short Wave NASA astronauts Christina Koch and Jessica Meir completed the first all-female spacewalk last week. The historic moment came 35 years after Kathryn Sullivan became the first American woman to spacewalk. We hear from Koch, Meir, and Sullivan. And former NASA chief scientist Ellen Stofan tells us why she says this moment is long overdue. Follow host Maddie Sofia on Twitter @maddie_sofia. Email the show at shortwave@npr.org.

Finally, An All-Female Spacewalk

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MADDIE SOFIA, HOST:

You're listening to SHORT WAVE from NPR. Back in March, NASA got us real jazzed up about an all-female spacewalk. For the first time, a 100% female team was going to float outside the International Space Station and take care of some astronaut business. And then it was canceled.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: NASA says the first spacewalk featuring two women astronauts will not happen as scheduled this week.

SOFIA: Basically, both astronauts needed a medium-sized spacesuit, and only one medium suit was ready to go - not a great look for NASA.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Women on social media blasted the decision, including Hillary Clinton, who tweeted make another suit.

SOFIA: And then fast-forward to last Friday.

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ANDREW MORGAN: And, Christina and Jessica, with that, the emergency MPEV is closed.

SOFIA: It finally happened.

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MORGAN: Jessica, Christina, we are so proud of you. You're going to do great today.

SOFIA: Astronauts Christina Koch and Jessica Meir, both in medium-sized suits, floated into open space to replace some faulty equipment related to powering the station.

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CHRISTINA KOCH: Drew, thank you so much. It's been my pleasure working with you this morning and working on getting that...

SOFIA: This is 35 years after the first woman spacewalked. And for Ellen Stofan, a former chief scientist at NASA, that's too long to wait.

ELLEN STOFAN: You know, the time that we have between these milestones, you know, I just shake my head a little bit because it's just - women are completely capable of getting the job done. And in this case, it really was a question of opportunity and equipment. And now that it's happened, it's great. You know, the fact that they were women was irrelevant. They got the job that needed to be done done.

SOFIA: Today on the show, NASA celebrates the first all-female spacewalk. But how much progress has actually been made? And I get to talk to Christina and Jessica, the history-making spacewalkers themselves, very briefly from space.

Station, this is NPR. How do you hear me?

JESSICA MEIR: We have you loud and clear, NPR. How do you hear us?

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SOFIA: So I got to interview Christina and Jessica back in September. This was before Friday's all-female spacewalk was even announced. Jessica had just arrived at the International Space Station and Christina was already up there. And let me just say, interviewing astronauts in space is honestly a little stressful. The logistics are wild.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Station, this is in Houston. Are you ready for the event?

SOFIA: They call an hour ahead, this time at the ungodly hour of 5:30 a.m.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: This is Mission Control Houston. Please call Station for a voice check.

SOFIA: And when they finally get to you, the clock is ticking. Ten minutes to interview two people - go.

I'll get right to it. Apparently, y'all are busy up there. So, Jessica, I know you two are friends and that you've been training together for years. What's it like to finally be up there in space together?

MEIR: It's really difficult to describe. Christina and I were both in the same class. As you mentioned, we started together in 2013, so it's been six years now. And in particular the last couple of years, we called ourselves space sisters because we were together really joined at the hip going through all the classes together. So we are all smiles up here with this reunion.

SOFIA: So here's the thing with this interview. When NASA pitched it to us, they had a very female-forward angle. They highlighted stuff like the fact that Christina was going to break this record for the longest female spaceflight and that Jessica would help continue an unbroken chain of women in space. And it got me kind of thinking - how do Christina and Jessica, you know, the astronauts at the center of all of this, feel about having their accomplishments so closely tied to their gender?

KOCH: That is something I've done a lot of thinking and reflecting on. And in the end, I do think it's important, and I think it's important because of the historical nature of what we're doing and that in the past women haven't always been at the table. And it's wonderful to be contributing to the human spaceflight program at a time when all contributions are being accepted when everyone has a role.

SOFIA: What about you, Jessica? How do you feel about it?

MEIR: I think Christina gave the perfect answer. You know, it is really - what we're doing now shows all of the work that went in for the decades prior, all of the women that worked to get us where we are today. So it's really nice to see how far that we've come.

SOFIA: In recent years, there's definitely been more and more opportunities for women in space, and there's been a lot of progress. What do you think still needs to be done to change the field so that it's truly equitable?

KOCH: I think anytime you're involved in an industry that has such a long lead time for technology advancements to be integrated into that industry, there are some legacy things that go on. But I don't see any institutional things that change. Jessica and I are held to the exact same training standards. We're treated the same in terms of assignments for various missions on board. And I think that's the important part. We work together as a team. And between us and between the crew and our teams on the ground, we don't look at gender, and we don't see it as a barrier.

SOFIA: They might not have been thinking about their gender but the rest of the world was. NASA called it hashtag #herstory on Twitter, invited journalists to watch the all-female spacewalk alongside the head of NASA and even lined up a call with President Trump. Then there was the press conference that morning.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Next question.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Thank you.

SOFIA: Kenneth Bowersox, acting head of Human Exploration at NASA, fielded questions from reporters, including one from a Politico reporter about why an all-female spacewalk had taken so long, to which he replied...

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KENNETH BOWERSOX: Well, I mean, there are some physical reasons that make it harder sometimes for women to do spacewalks. You know, there are - it's a little bit like playing in the NBA. You know, I'm too short to play in the NBA. And sometimes physical characteristics make a difference in certain activities, and spacewalks are one of those areas where just how your body is built in shape, it makes a difference in how well you can work the suit.

SOFIA: So on the day of this historic spacewalk, back at NASA HQ, the talk was still about what women could physically do. Remember Ellen Stofan from the beginning, former chief scientist at NASA? She says the main problem isn't women's bodies. It's the suit.

STOFAN: If you're a small person who's put in a suit that's too large for you, you are going to have a hard time getting the job done. If you're put in a suit that fits you, any woman is equally as capable of getting the job done.

SOFIA: And can you talk to me a little bit about some of the challenges that women have faced when it comes to using equipment in general in space?

STOFAN: Well, when you think of how equipment is designed, it tends to be designed, frankly, by men for men. And so in that sense, tools are designed for larger hands. Suits are designed for larger bodies that are maybe organized slightly differently. And so in general, women are put into men's equipment. And it turns out, you know, sex and gender do actually matter. And so when you think of, like, OK, if you're going to put a spacesuit on, can you put a generic spacesuit on or do you actually have to worry about the differences between men and women? And, of course, the answer is you do have to worry about those differences. And if you don't, that can actually hinder women from getting the job done.

SOFIA: But if you talk with Dr. Kathryn Sullivan, the first American woman to spacewalk, she argues the suits weren't made with any gender in mind.

KATHRYN SULLIVAN: The suit was not optimized to gender at all. It was a design that was supposed to be able to fit any human being from a very slight-framed woman to a larger framed man. It fails to do that, and it fails disproportionately on the smaller end. But that's not because someone decided to not bother too much with the women.

SOFIA: Regardless of who the suits were designed for, in 2003, NASA found that zero male astronauts had been limited by suit size. But about one-third of the women had. To give you an idea of who's actually doing the spacewalking, here's the data - 138 Americans have spacewalked; only 14 of those Americans were women. I asked Ellen if she thought NASA suits were exclusionary in practice.

STOFAN: Yes. It obviously is because if you have equipment that excludes women, you have equipment that excludes women. And so the result of it is you - you know, if you think that's a problem, you need to diversify. You know, you need to work on the equipment to improve it. And in NASA's defense, they have known this and understood this, but it's something they have not had the funds to actually fix this. And they've been saying this all along. If they had more resources, they would be able - they want a next-generation spacesuit. They want to be able to deal with this. It's just been, you know, unobtainable at the moment.

SOFIA: You know, I'm also wondering, if you wouldn't mind reacting to this. So Ken Bowersox also went on to say that we've also brought women into the crews because of their brains.

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BOWERSOX: Right? They come in. They bring different skills. They think of things different ways. And by using their brains, they can overcome a lot of those physical challenges.

STOFAN: Interesting. You know, obviously, diverse teams perform better than non-diverse teams, and that has been shown. And so when you have a team that has people who have different backgrounds, different points of view, different ethnicity, different gender, I think you do get a much better team.

SOFIA: Yeah. Let's talk about that diversity a little bit. So I was curious about some of the diversity demographics of our astronauts. And, you know, 14 American women have spacewalked, and according to a NASA public affairs person I talked to yesterday, only one of them was a woman of color and zero black women have spacewalked. What's your reaction to that data?

STOFAN: You know, I think it's a slow process, this process of change of diversifying who gets to go to space. You know, I think for many of us here on the ground, we would like to see that change more quickly.

SOFIA: Are you surprised by those numbers at all?

STOFAN: I am. Yeah. They're much lower than I would have hoped they would be.

SOFIA: You obviously spent a lot of time at NASA. And what do you think NASA in the field still needs to do so that it does truly become equitable?

STOFAN: I think the issue is, you know, obviously, this goes far beyond NASA. When you look at the science, technology, engineering and math and the numbers in computer science of women has actually - this is all women - has actually gone down. And still you see white women, women of color, men of color still underrepresented across most of the STEM fields. And to me, the problem with that is we are leaving talent behind, and frankly I think this country, our economy, we depend on diversifying our STEM workforce. We've got to.

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SOFIA: Stofan doesn't feel like it's her place to tell NASA how to deal with complex issues like race and gender. She left her job as chief scientist back in 2016 and now heads up the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. As for the spacesuit problem, NASA is taking steps to try and remedy that. They've just unveiled the next generation of spacesuits. The suits are adjustable and are supposed to fit people of all sizes. They'll be ready around 2024.

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SOFIA: We want to take a moment to thank all of the amazing women we got to talk to today - Dr. Ellen Stofan and all of our record-breaking astronauts, Christina Koch and Jessica Meir, the first all-female team to spacewalk, and Dr. Kathryn Sullivan, the first American woman to spacewalk and the author of the book "Handprints On Hubble: An Astronaut's Story Of Invention." This is NPR SHORT WAVE. I'm Maddie Sofia. See you tomorrow.

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