America’s National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) made history when astronauts Christina Koch and Jessica Meir stepped outside the International Space Station (ISS), a multinational project, to replace a faulty battery charger. This may have looked like just another spacewalk. Indeed, it was the 221st such undertaken by people aboard the ISS. But it’s the first to be done by an all-women team.
Friday’s spacewalk came several months after an earlier plan for an all-female spacewalk had to be shelved. There were not enough appropriately sized spacesuits for it, went the explanation. That sparked an outcry over sexism in the space programme. Such assignments are awarded on the basis of which astronauts are best prepared to complete the task at hand under difficult conditions. Those who picked the spacesuits, it seems, had already made up their minds about who would be picked. This spacewalk should dispel preconceived notions about the gender more likely to be sent out.
It’s not just NASA but space agencies across the world that seem to see nothing odd in astronauts being mostly men. To put the gender disparity in perspective, women were not even allowed off the planet until 1978, and this was more than a decade after the first ever spacewalk by a human being (done by a man in 1965). For decades after that, space efforts have represented an anachronism. It was all very high tech. It was all very ambitious. It was all about going where “no man had gone before", as the Star Trek mission statement had it. But there was always something primitive about it.