Last week, the world came oh-so close to seeing the first all-female spacewalk, but as it turns out, we earthlings will have to keep waiting to see that day.
NASA astronauts Anne McClain and Christina Koch were slated to perform maintenance on the International Space Station (ISS) during the much-anticipated spacewalk, scheduled for Friday, March 29, 2019. But the would-be historic milestone came to a halt earlier in the week after NASA announced that Koch will instead be conducting the spacewalk with a male astronaut, Nick Hague, because there were not enough equipped medium-size space suits aboard the ISS for both Koch and McClain to wear at the same time.
Aboard the ISS, in the final week leading up to the spacewalk, McClain and Koch, the two female astronauts currently on the space station, discovered they both would need to wear a medium-size space suit during their mission. While there are enough properly outfitted large and extra-large space suits on hand, only one medium-size suit aboard the ISS was properly configured for a spacewalk.
Even though the changes to the spacewalk were necessary to keep the team safe and on schedule, many people on social media expressed disappointment at the almost-historic moment, which would have coincided with the conclusion of women’s history month.
Anticipating the female spacewalk, BU Research had reached out to speak with Boston University women astronomers, engineers, and space scientists about the milestone. They were, to say the least, pretty excited about it. After the space suit snafu, we reached out again to see how their feelings had changed based on the updated spacewalker assignments. Here are their reactions, before and after the all-female spacewalk was no longer a thing:
In 2009, the day before NASA lead mission analyst Jenny Gruber (ENG’99) adopted her now 10-year-old son, the Hubble Space telescope mission, STS-125, landed safely on the ground. While simultaneously going through the emotional process of adopting a child, Gruber was responsible for making sure the crew returned to Earth in one piece.
“I just felt this sense of peace,” she says. “It was a moment of feeling like I am exactly where I’m supposed to be, doing exactly what I am supposed to be doing.”
As a self-described explorer and adventurer, Gruber has always been intrigued by space. She was first inspired by the 1983 movie The Right Stuff, and by following along the news about the Apollo missions when she was a young girl in Nebraska. When she came to Boston University to study aerospace engineering, she was one of only four women in the program. In 2002, after graduating, she landed her first role at NASA mission control. Now, she serves as lead mission analyst for NASA’s Exploration Mission 2, which will be the first mission to take people back to the moon.
“I have an obligation to do as much as I can to inspire the next generation the way I was inspired,” she says. “I’m glad people are noticing the first all-women spacewalk, but I want to make sure it doesn’t turn into an oddity, or something strange. The focus should be, it’s about time we have something like this, and anyone can do whatever it is they’re good at.”
“I’m glad safety is the highest priority, and both crew members will be able to work most efficiently,” Gruber wrote by email. “I understand that there is limited space on ISS, and crew time is expensive, so the choice to switch crew members instead of taking extra time to outfit another medium torso is the right call to respect taxpayer dollars. This isn’t just a stunt—they’re really placing the right people in the right job at the right time. Another time will come when that means an all-women team.
Aurora Kesseli, a PhD candidate in BU’s astronomy department, is looking for the next Earth-like planet. How does one even begin looking for a habitable planet in the vastness of outer space? By characterizing and understanding stars around newly discovered planets, Kesseli explains. This is because observers are not directly seeing the planet—they are seeing the signature in the star’s light.
“So you really need to know what the star is doing in order to get an accurate density or size of the planet,” Kesseli says. “We have new planets being discovered all the time and new instruments that are going to allow us to characterize them better than we ever have before. It’s a really exciting time to be in exoplanets.” She has been working with Phil Muirhead, assistant professor of astronomy, all while coleading BU’s Women in Astronomy group and preparing for graduation in May 2019.
The group gets together about once a month, varying from informal trips to see Hidden Figures or other female-centered films, to important group discussions on issues that could negatively affect women in the department, such as implicit bias and imposter syndrome.
“I think it’s really important to have women being role models for other women,” says Kesseli. “The cool thing about spaceflight is it touches astronomy, space physics, geology, engineering…and other fields also underrepresented with women. Hopefully this will inspire the next generation of women.”
Kesseli wrote over email, “It is obviously really disappointing that the all-women spacewalk has been postponed. We really needed something like this, and I really think we were ready for it as a field. The pessimistic part of me is not surprised this happened, but I have seen so much positivity for the all-women spacewalk on social media and anger at the postponement that I am optimistic that it will happen and that women will continue to be leaders in our field.”
Inspired by late astronaut Kalpana Chawla—the first-ever Indian woman to go to space—Dolon Bhattacharyya, a research scientist at the BU Center for Space Physics, decided she wanted to study astronomy as a young child. After coming to BU in 2010 as a graduate student, she began studying Mars, primarily focused on the escape of hydrogen atoms from the upper atmospheres of different planets. For a planet like Mars, understanding hydrogen escapes can potentially answer the long-standing question of whether or not the planet was ever capable of harboring life.
In her experience, one of the main reasons for the gender gap is the lack of successful women who can serve as mentors to junior female scientists. She has noticed other factors, like unconscious bias and a lack of support for individuals with family, also contributing to this disparity. Along with her work as a research scientist at BU, she is working on projects with the Hubble Space Telescope and NASA’s MAVEN mission.
“The all-women spacewalk serves as a definite marker for [NASA’s] progress,” she says. “It will serve as an inspiration for young girls and let them know that they can also dare to dream and that nothing is impossible.”
“When I first found out about it on social media I thought it was a joke of some kind,” Bhattacharyya wrote in an email. “I could not quite understand why the agency, known for its extreme planning, would make the announcement about the all-women spacewalk days beforehand and not check if there were proper suits available for the astronauts to execute it. The situation is a little bit hilarious.
“I really hope that an all-women spacewalk event happens in the near future,” she continued to write. “Honestly, I would love to see an all-women crew man the space station. That would be incredibly awesome, too! People’s reaction and outrage on social media makes me think that people do care about astronomy and space sciences. This is good news for our community as most of us are dependent on federal funds for our research. If more people care about the science being done through an organization like NASA, then it does help with the yearly budget allocated for astronomy.”
“It is critical to educate young women in their early-career stage about what space physicists do, how they contribute to society, as well as expose them to many successful women working in the space physics field,” says Wen Li, assistant professor of astronomy at BU. She remembers looking at the sky as a child, feeling curious about what is happening in space—a place she thought was unreachable at that time. She one day learned about people sending man-made satellites into space and was totally amazed.
Li has already greatly contributed to the field by researching “killer electrons” in Earth’s radiation belts. These highly energetic electrons can potentially damage critical electronics of satellites and be hazardous to astronauts in space due to their high radiation. Li hopes to expand her research to Jupiter and has been actively involved in NASA’s Juno mission the past few years.
“[This event] is an excellent way of demonstrating what space physicists do, how they contribute to society, as well as expose them to many successful women working in the space physics field, with the ultimate goal of motivating and encouraging young women to pursue their careers in this field,” she says.
“It was a bit disappointing to hear that the all-women spacewalk has been canceled,” Li wrote via email. “However, I am hopeful that an all-women spacewalk milestone will occur eventually.”
“When I was a kid, I loved mystery stories,” says Marissa Vogt, research scientist at the Center for Space Physics. “But I was always drawn to Nancy Drew, and for some reason never had any interest in reading the The Hardy Boys books. It was easier to relate to the Nancy Drew novels because she was someone I could relate to.”
From 2016 to 2018, Vogt was a National Science Foundation postdoctoral fellow at BU. She has been studying the effects of the solar wind—which is a stream of charged particles that is constantly blowing out from the sun—on Jupiter’s magnetosphere and aurora. When the solar wind interacts with a planet’s magnetic field, it can create solar storms and put on beautiful displays of aurora, much like the natural light shows visible on Earth, but differs from planet to planet. Vogt is also a member of the science team for the MAVEN mission to Mars.
“Anytime we can highlight work being done by members of underrepresented groups and use it as a way to reach out to underrepresented communities is great,” says Vogt. “It’s almost surprising this is only happening in 2019, but of course, better late than never.”
“When I heard that the spacewalk had been postponed due to the issue with space suit sizing, I immediately thought about a recent article I had read in The Guardian that cited dozens of examples of historically male-centric product design and safety regulations and discussed the ramifications,” Vogt wrote in an email. “I think this highlights how the idea of ‘one size fits all’ doesn’t always apply, particularly for women and minority groups, and our society needs to be more considerate in making business and policy decisions.
“Unfortunately, many women I know working in science have had some negative experience in which they were treated differently, or had access to different resources, because they were women,” she continued to write. “In many cases it might be something that’s a relatively minor inconvenience—like working in a lab or office building with multiple men’s bathrooms but only one women’s bathroom—but these experiences do add up and contribute to a general feeling of unwelcomeness. I think it’s really important that, going forward, we need to do our best to be considerate of the needs of people from diverse backgrounds and experiences—and we’re definitely moving in the right direction, but I don’t think we’re there yet.”
Merav Opher, associate professor of astronomy at BU, is not afraid of breaking boundaries in space sciences or afraid of rethinking how boundaries at the end of our solar system protect us from the sun. In 2015, she and her research team discovered that this boundary—an area called the heliosphere—could very well be shaped like a “croissant,” challenging a decades-old belief that the heliosphere is shaped like a comet.
“This could mean we are much closer to the interstellar medium than previously thought,” she explains. “We are a much smaller bubble.” Opher has been a guest investigator in NASA’s Voyager missions since 2005. As of December 2018, Voyager 2, and sibling craft Voyager 1, became the farthest-traveled spacecraft from Earth and will continue to provide clues to astronomers like Opher about what lies beyond the heliosphere. “Now we have the data from Voyager,” she says. “And we need to put together this puzzle.”
“There are women taking more leadership positions; years ago you couldn’t even imagine a female in spacewalk,” said Opher. “Now, slowly things are changing.”
“I think the walk will happen one day…this is just an adjustment to the reality of more women taking part in space exploration,” Opher wrote in an email. “It’s exciting, and I am sure in the future, there will be female suits ready! Women are taking strides, but there are still too few women in leadership positions, and it will take time and pressure for this to change.”
Responses have been edited for length and clarity.