NASA is no stranger to strong and capable women. Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, historically shrugged aside the social pressures of being the first of her gender to carry the Stars and Stripes into orbit in 1983, emphasizing instead that leaving the grasp of our home planet is an incredible accomplishment for anyone. She was proud to be a role model for Americans, and for young women everywhere, but most of all, she was proud to be doing her job to the best of her abilities – continuing to serve our nation’s space program quietly for years after her final mission.
On Thursday, Peggy Whitson continued to carry Ride’s legacy of female leadership and expertise to the stars, as she became the woman with the most space-walk experience in history, ranked a respectable third overall for all of mankind. This isn’t Whitson’s first important record, however. She also holds the title for being the first woman ever to command the International Space Station, and has logged more days living in orbit than any woman from any nation – racking up 377 days on her first two missions, and continuing to add to that now, as her third mission is well underway.
Whitson’s Thursday spacewalk, which began at around 8AM Eastern Standard Time, was her eighth trip outside the thin barrier of habitability offered by the ISS. She was joined by Commander Shane Kimbrough and the two of them attached the docking module Canadarm2, which will serve as a second docking port for the future of orbital taxiing by the likes of Boeing and SpaceX.
Unfortunately, the historic event was hampered by the loss of an important piece of shielding Whitson and Kimbrough were attempting to install on the port. Mission control tracked the cloth bundle as it floated away from the ISS, and will continue to monitor its trajectory to ensure it does not pose a threat to the ISS upon its subsequent orbits. Both astronauts installed the remaining three cloth shields in a manner they hope will protect the most vulnerable components until a subsequent mission can add a fourth.
This is far from the first time astronauts have had their gear escape in the vacuum of space. Losing small things like bolts is a fairly common occurrence, and once in 2008, an astronaut lost his entire tool kit to the great beyond. The shielding lost in Thursday’s mission was supposed to be tethered to the ISS’s structure to prevent such an issue, and frustration was evident in Whitson’s voice as she relayed the mishap to mission control.
The duo successfully hooked up the heater cables that are vital to the function of the docking port, removed its cover, and installed three shields intended to protect it from micro-meteorite impacts. The fourth shield, which when unfolded was about two inches thick and five feet long by two feet wide, escaped before being installed.
Despite the setback, Whitson’s total of 59 hours surpassed the previous record for most accumulated spacewalk time for a woman at 50 hours and 40 minutes, set by another NASA legend, Sunita Williams – who is slated to be among the first four NASA astronauts to ride in the SpaceX Crew Dragon and Boeing Starliner capsules as early as next year.
The 57-year-old Whitson has already accrued more than 500 days in total above us, and is slated to return home in June, though discussion is ongoing about the possibility of needing her to remain for an additional three months. Who knows, in that time she may even be able to overtake the American with the most spacewalk time in history, Mike Lopez-Alegria at 67 hours. At that point, she would need only one more hour of spacewalk time to be the most experienced spacewalker in human history.
Image courtesy of NASA