In October 2019, Christina Koch and Jessica Meir exited the International Space Station and replaced a controller regulating the batteries that store the station’s solar power. But the two astronauts accomplished much more than fixing the space station. They completed the first all-female spacewalk, shifting who we see as strong, brave, competent, and who’s on the team pushing the boundaries of exploration.
Yes, as Koch and Meir said, they were just doing their jobs. All astronauts say that, because being in space is our job. Yet two women executing intellectually and physically demanding work in one of the most challenging circumstances in which humans operate—orbital altitude of 250 miles, velocity of 17,500 m.p.h.—is an important event. Not because these women proved what we, women, could do; that was never in doubt. Rather because the whole world saw it, including the gatekeepers (frequently men) who determine who has access to these opportunities.
Koch and Meir executed the 7-hr. 17-min. spacewalk wearing space suits designed primarily in the 1970s, when the U.S. had flown no women astronauts and women were just 16% of NASA’s workforce, compared with 34% today. Men’s physiology, perspectives, values, measurements, comfort and ambitions have mostly been the default template for designing major human endeavors. I believe that Koch and Meir, by their sheer skill and execution, shift us closer to a template based on intelligence, agility, capability, integrity, courage and excellence.
Jemison, a former NASA astronaut, was the first African-American woman in space