The Stuff of Science Fiction: Walking in Space

Disclaimer: Spacewalking is really not any more science fiction material, but at one time, it was impossible and would fit right into the fantasies of any science fiction enthusiast. What actually goes on in spacewalking, and how does it differ from moonwalking? The first involves becoming trained in the harsh environment of outer space, while the second one was Michael Jackson’s signature move when he was on the stage!

What is a spacewalk?

Every time astronauts go out of the space vehicle and “roam” around, he or she is doing a spacewalk. In fancy technical terms, it is called an extravehicular activity, and the credit of performing the first-ever spacewalk goes to Alexei Leonov, a cosmonaut. He accomplished this feat on March 18, 1965, for a full ten minutes. Meanwhile, the first American to do an EVA was Ed White, on the Gemini 4 mission, which lasted for 23 minutes. Nowadays, astronauts routinely do spacewalks outside of the International Space Station. With Richard Branson shooting off to space recently and Jeff Bezos shortly, it may even be possible for non-astronauts to conduct their own adventure spacewalk!

How do they train for a spacewalk?

Human beings take approximately 12 months to be able to fully walk. That means daily attempts of trying as a tiny human person. The same goes for a spacewalk. It is not a walk in the park but something that can be perilous if not done correctly. The usual method astronauts use is swimming. It approximates the weightless environment in space. Hence, if you ever visit the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, you will see astronauts-in-training swimming their hearts out, showing a great degree of dedication on their end.

Why is there a need for a spacewalk?

Astronauts do not do a spacewalk because they are bored in the vehicle or need to exercise. In the absence of gravity, no matter what distance you cover, it really would not matter. Moreover, you tend to rotate 360 degrees when doing a spacewalk if it is not carefully controlled, so it is not a good exercise option. There are several reasons why they venture into a spacewalk, one of which is to test their equipment. The space agencies have made investments in various equipment, and astronauts are usually tasked to either tasked to install, test, or repair them as needed.

One recent example was when NASA astronauts Shane Kimbrough and European Space Agency astronaut Thomas Pesquet spent about 6.5 hours doing an EVA and working together to install a new solar array. You have to know that solar panels, without the protection of a gas atmosphere, can easily corrode. Every now and then, astronauts would have to inspect their power source to make sure they are in tip-top shape and, if needed, replace them.

How is a Spacewalk Performed?

When astronauts are tasked with doing a spacewalk, they first need to don their spacesuits. This specially made space armor contains the oxygen they have to use for the duration of the EVA. It also has thrusters and a battery to provide electricity to the unit, which can be maneuvered using a joystick.

Astronauts are required to put on their suits hours before the spacewalk for two reasons. First, they need to acclimatize to the less flexible suit, and second, they need to get rid of the nitrogen gas from their body and suit. If they do not do this, the air bubbles can cause pain in their joints, which spacemen refer to as “the bends”, well, because they are present where the body bends. Once they are ready, they leave the vehicle through a special door referred to as an airlock, essentially a double door, so that air does not escape from the vehicle. For the mission mentioned above, the two astronauts exited through the ISS’s Quest airlock. The duo also went over to the far-left side of the ISS, as this is where the solar array would have to be installed.

How Do Astronauts Keep Themselves Safe?

What is the biggest danger that an astronaut could face during a spacewalk apart from running out of oxygen? Drifting off into deep space. Yes, it is a scary phenomenon, but something that scientists have thought of and prepared for ahead. They made investments in tethers, which is just a fancy word for ropes. The spacesuits are attached to a tether that is in turn connected to the vehicle. They also wear Simplified Aid for EVA Rescue (SAFER) backpacks, powered by thrusters to help them navigate so they do not wander away aimlessly. Pretty cool, right?