NASA astronauts Nick Hague, Anne McClain and Christina Koch (right) work on U.S. spacesuit maintenance in the Quest airlock of the International Space Station. McClain and Koch will be conducting the first all-female spacewalk in NASA history later this week. Credit: NASA

U.S. space agency NASA will send astronauts Anne McClain, 39, and Christina Koch, 40, on NASA’s first women-only spacewalk this Friday (March 29th).

The all-female spacewalk also will be supported by a female ground crew: Mary Lawrence will serve as lead flight director and Jackie Kagey will be lead spacewalk flight controller at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.

It’s a fitting milestone for Women’s History Month, although NASA says the timing is coincidental.

Both McClain and Koch were part of NASA’s 2013 astronaut class, which was 50 percent female. While women make up a growing number of astronauts, they’re still underrepresented in the field of space travel — for now.

NASA astronaut and Expedition 58 Flight Engineer Anne McClain works inside Japan’s Kibo laboratory module. She was setting up and installing small satellite deployment hardware inside Kibo’s airlock to eject a set of CubeSats outside the Japanese module. Credit: NASA

McClain, a major in the U.S. Army, was a helicopter pilot who flew combat missions for many years. “I was blessed to have parents who never put qualifiers on what I could do,” she said in a U.S. Army video posted on her Twitter account.

Working for NASA, McClain said, “we don’t do the same thing any two days” in a row.

“We could be [training] in the water in a spacesuit on Monday, and in Russian language class on Tuesday, and then we’re sitting in Mission Control, talking to [the International] Space Station on Wednesday,” she said. (Astronauts traveling to the International Space Station must hitch a ride on Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft, so Russian language skills are required.)

NASA astronaut and Expedition 59 Flight Engineer Christina Koch familiarizes herself with International Space Station hardware inside the Unity module. Credit: NASA

Koch, like McClain, has undergraduate and advanced degrees in engineering.

She began developing space-science instruments at NASA, and later worked in Antarctica for a year, conducting experiments and helping with research.

Her experience in Antarctica proved valuable, she said, because there are many parallels to the work done by astronauts, in terms of “the harshness of the environment and the mental and physical … fortitude it takes to be successful” there.

The March 29th spacewalk will last about seven hours, according to NASA.

 

UPDATE:

Late Monday afternoon, NASA updated astronaut assignments for two upcoming spacewalks with the first women-only spacewalk now off the table.

Instead, NASA astronauts Nick Hague and Christina Koch are preparing now to conduct the next spacewalk this Friday, during which they will continue work to install powerful lithium-ion batteries for one pair of the station’s solar arrays.

Koch had been scheduled to conduct this spacewalk with astronaut Anne McClain, in what would have been the first all-female spacewalk. However, after consulting with McClain and Hague following the first spacewalk, mission managers decided to adjust the assignments, due in part to spacesuit availability on the station.

McClain learned during her first spacewalk that a medium-size hard upper torso – essentially the shirt of the spacesuit – fits her best. Because only one medium-size torso can be made ready by Friday, March 29, Koch will wear it.

McClain now is tentatively scheduled to perform her next spacewalk – the third in this series – on Monday, April 8 with Canadian Space Agency astronaut David Saint-Jacques.