NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/AP) – Astronauts Christina Koch and Jessica Meir, soaring 260 miles above a wave of public interest, floated outside the International Space Station Friday for history’s first all-female spacewalk.
Far below on Earth, crowds gathered at the Cradle of Aviation Museum in Garden City, N.Y., to watch the event, reports CBS2’s Jennifer McLogan.
“I think it’s just amazing for them to be a part of history right now, to be able to see it live,” said Stephanie Lacey of Lindenhurst, who was joined at the viewing party with her nephews.
“I appreciate the fact that it’s female because we have men dominating everything,” said Rockaway resident Daisy Chisolm.
Elsewhere planetside, President Donald Trump made a surprise call to the astronauts from the White House.
“I just want to congratulate you, what you do is incredible,” said Trump. He was joined by Vice President Mike Pence, daughter Ivanka and NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine.
“You’re very brave people, I don’t think I want to do it, I must tell you that,” the president said. “But you are amazing people. … Congratulations, Christina and Jessica, on this historic event, this is truly historic. And you’re right now on television all over the world, so don’t get nervous!”
“Thank you,” Meir replied from orbit. “We don’t want to take too much credit because there have been many other female spacewalkers before us. This is just the first time there have been two women outside at the same time. … For us, this is really just us doing our job.
“At the same time, we recognize that it is a historic achievement and we do, of course, want to give credit to all those who came before us. There has been a long line of female scientists, explorers, engineers and astronauts, we are following in their footsteps to get us where we are today.”
Trump praised the spacewalkers for doing “an incredible job.”
“This is a first step, because we’re going to the moon, and then we’re going to Mars,” the president said. “I just want to congratulate you both, you’re very brave, brilliant women who represent this country so well. … Thank you both very much. Have a good time.”
The historic spacewalk began at 7:38 a.m. EDT when Koch, making her fourth excursion, and Meir, making her first, switched their spacesuits to battery power inside the Quest airlock, kicking off 221st station spacewalk since assembly began in 1998. It was the first by two women in the 54 years since the first “extra-vehicular activity,” or EVA, by a Russian cosmonaut in 1965, sparking widespread public interest.
“They are replacing it with a lithium battery so it was an urgent repair they needed to conduct,” said Jennifer Baxmeyer, executive director at Cradle Of Aviation Museum.
It was the second such failure of a battery charger this year, puzzling engineers and putting a hold on future battery installations for the solar power system.
“The last time they weren’t able to do it because they didn’t have two spacesuits that would fit female astronauts,” said North Babylon resident Kerri Kiker.
Despite the unusual level of scrutiny, Friday’s spacewalk was a strictly-business affair to replace a faulty 232-pound battery charger in the lab’s solar power system. Any two of the space station’s four NASA sponsored astronauts could have done the work — they all received similar training — but Koch and Meir got the nod.
“It’s a sign of the slowly growing number of women in the astronaut corps,” said Kathy Sullivan, who became the first American female to walk in space in 1984. “The occasional woman as a bit of a novelty on a crew or a spacewalk or on a mission control console is giving way to the normalcy of more gender-diverse teams in all these arenas and women regularly taking on high-stakes tasks and leadership roles.”
America’s first female spacewalker from 35 years ago, Sullivan was delighted. She said it’s good to finally have enough women in the astronaut corps and trained for spacewalking for this to happen.
“We’ve got qualified women running the control, running space centers, commanding the station, commanding spaceships and doing spacewalks,” Sullivan told The Associated Press earlier this week. “And golly, gee whiz, every now and then there’s more than one woman in the same place.”
“For young ladies to have role models out there doing sciences and math will propel them,” said museum educator Katherine Gonzalez.
“They say if you see it, then you can achieve it, so now young girls (are) seeing women up in the space station,” said Garden City resident Marie Ilardi.
“As a mom it’s really fun for me to sit and see my daughters have all these opportunities and chances,” said Elmont resident Kerri Mackay.
Tracy Caldwell Dyson, a three-time spacewalker who looked on from Mission Control in Houston, added: “Hopefully, this will now be considered normal.”
Expert staff at Cradle of Aviation say although floating in space looks easy, spacewalks are one of the most physically challenging tasks astronauts are asked to do.
NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine watched the big event unfold from Washington headquarters.
“We have the right people doing the right job at the right time,” he said. “They are an inspiration to people all over the world including me. And we’re very excited to get this mission underway.”
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi sent congratulations to Koch and Meir “for leaving their mark on history” and tweeted that they’re an inspiration to women and girls across America.
The spacewalkers’ main job was to replace the faulty 19-year-old old charge-regulating device — the size of a big, bulky box — for one of the three new batteries that was installed last week by Koch and Andrew Morgan.
“Jessica and Christina, we are so proud of you,” said Morgan, one of four astronauts inside. He called them his “astrosisters.”
Spacewalking is widely considered the most dangerous assignment in orbit. Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano, who operated the station’s robot arm from inside during Friday’s spacewalk, almost drowned in 2013 when his helmet flooded with water from his suit’s cooling system.
“Everyone ought to be sending some positive vibes by way of airwaves to space for these two top-notch spacewalkers,” Dyson said early in the spacewalk.
Meir, a marine biologist making her spacewalking debut, became the 228th person in the world to conduct a spacewalk and the 15th woman. It was the fourth spacewalk for Koch, an electrical engineer who is seven months into an 11-month mission that will be the longest ever by a woman. Both are members of NASA’s Astronaut Class of 2013, the only one equally split between women and men.
Pairing up for a spacewalk was especially meaningful for Koch and Meir; they’re close friends. They’re also both former Girl Scouts.
It took two decades for women to catch up with men in the spacewalking arena.
The world’s first spacewalker on March 18, 1965, Soviet cosmonaut Alexei Leonov, died last week. NASA astronaut Ed White became the first U.S. spacewalker less than three months after Leonov’s feat. Women did not follow out the hatch until 1984. The first was Soviet cosmonaut Svetlana Savitskaya. Sullivan followed three months later.
Friday’s milestone spacewalk was the 421st for team Earth.
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