Spacewalks and The Women Who Love Them

The First of Three Planned Spacewalks Went Swimmingly

Last week, two NASA astronauts, spent nearly seven hours in the vacuum of space. The spacewalk was the first of three planned walks to replace and update batteries on the ISS.  This week, the first all-female spacewalk was scheduled to take place but was canceled due to a lack of medium-sized suits

On last week’s walk, the astronauts replaced three old batteries – of the nickel-hydrogen variety – with more current and powerful lithium-ion ones.  Anne McClain and Nick Hague, stationed aboard the ISS, had a bit of trouble with a bolt toward the end of the process. 

Despite that setback, however, they completed the job faster than NASA had planned, so the spacewalking rookies got to do a little extra cleanup.  McClain took an instrument wrapped with tape and began to clean up space debris that had built up on some panels.  This is the 214th time that astronauts aboard the ISS have donned space suits and braved the harshest environment we know with no gravity to keep them within reach.

Promoted:

What’s The Deal With Spacewalks Anyway?

As a fan of all things space, the idea of a spacewalk both fascinates and terrifies me.  It’s not enough to strap yourself inside a capsule which is attached to gigantic tanks of highly volatile chemical explosives.  It’s not even enough to start a chain reaction that will cause those chemical explosives to ignite and burn in such a way that they send you out of the terrestrial domain and out of Earth’s protective gravity.  What kind of guts does it take to then, put on a relatively flimsy suit and get outside of that spacecraft to perform your mission? 

It’s you in a suit outside of a spacecraft in orbit.  What could possibly go wrong?

Well, first, let’s talk about Newton’s laws of motion.  The first, as most of us know, is that a body in motion will stay in motion unless acted upon by an external force (i.e. gravity, friction, etc.)  This means the first terrifying part of the spacewalk experience would be stepping out without any type of tether, or if something happened to the tether system.  Anyone else see Gravity? There’s not much else that’s more terrifying to me than hurtling through space with enough life support to think about how you’re going to die for a couple of hours or more first.

But that’s just one of the ridiculous things that can go wrong.  There’s also the chance of a puncture.  As I mentioned above, McClain spent some time after the batteries were changed cleaning up space debris from the outside of the space station.  Well, that debris didn’t just get there because the last astronaut outside the ISS left it there.  It got there because the space around Earth is cluttered with junk.  That junk can be anywhere from broken satellite and rocket parts to tiny little fragments of meteorites.  

Faster than a speeding bullet!

Most of that junk is moving so slowly it pretty much appears to just be floating there, but there’s more than enough that’s not so idle, and it can cause major problems for functional satellites, spacecraft, and, of course, astronauts crazy enough to go outside the ship with only a thin suit to protect them.  Imagine an object the size of a half-inch hex nut got accidentally jettisoned during one of the 200 or so other spacewalks that have taken place. 

Something that size, through the orbiting pull of Earth’s gravity, coupled with energy gained from impacts with other objects could pick up enough speed to be more lethal than the most powerful sniper rifle we know of today.  If it hit a ship, or a satellite, or the ISS itself, it could be catastrophic.  If it hit your suit – even if it missed or grazed you – it’s pretty much game over.  

What happens if you get a hole in your suit?

Well, it depends on how close you are to safety.  All space suits are designed with the idea that they could be punctured or develop a leak some other way.  This is only a temporary fix, however, and the pressure and life-support systems won’t hold out for long.  They are designed to give the astronaut enough time to get to safety.  If, on the other hand, your suit were hit by a large piece of debris which also happened to cause your tether to fail, then you’d probably die horribly.  It’s not super likely, but it is possible.  So again, what kind of nerve does it take for someone to volunteer to do this?

Let’s say the worst happens, what’s the damage?  You know, the gory bits?

Well, surprisingly, being exposed to the vacuum of space is not quite as dramatic as one would think.  It would still suck though.  A lot.  Contrary to popular belief, though, your blood wouldn’t boil (although the moisture on your tongue might) and you wouldn’t freeze to death instantly.  You also wouldn’t necessarily die from the pressure differential in a dramatic way, either, unless, that is, you hold your breath.  This fascinating article has more about all of that.

So my hat’s off to the astronauts who are far braver than I would be in their situation!

First of all, I’m not just going to gloss over the historic occasion that would have been this week’s all-female spacewalk.  That’s a big deal.  The reality is, though, Christina Koch, the other astronaut who was to be a part of Friday’s mission will still be going out there on Friday.  We need women in science now more than ever, and I hope these brave women are being held up as examples in every science classroom across the country this week.  So kudos, ladies, and good luck up there!

 

Promoted:

You may also like...

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.