Taconic grad Wilson key link to success of first all-female spacewalk

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CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — Astronaut Stephanie Wilson, who grew up in Pittsfield, had a significant role in Friday's first all-female spacewalk — but she never left the ground.

Wilson, a 1984 graduate of Taconic High School, spent the day at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, serving as the CapCom — the astronaut on Earth who communicates with the crew members aboard the International Space Station.

She assumed her duties Friday morning as fellow astronauts Jessica Meir and Christina Koch began their historic spacewalk. Wilson issued instructions and stayed in touch with Meir and Koch while they spent seven hours outside the spacecraft installing a power controller.

NASA even tweeted on Wilson's role Friday, writing: "Who's talking to the astronauts from Mission Control during today's #AllWomanSpacewalk? That's astronaut Stephanie Wilson, who has spent 42 days in space over 3 spaceflights!"

The tweet also included a link to Wilson's page on the NASA website.

Wilson, first selected as an astronaut 23 years ago, has flown on three shuttle missions that were charged with assembling the space station and delivering crews in 2006, 2007 and 2010, according to NASA. Some of the personal items she carried into space on those flights included a poster from the Berkshire Music School and a photograph from the Norman Rockwell Museum. Wilson was the second African American woman to go into space, after Mae C. Jemison in 1992.

The world's first all-female spacewalking team made history Friday high above Earth, replacing a broken part of the station's power grid. As Koch and Meir completed the job with wrenches, screwdrivers and power-grip tools, it marked the first time in a half-century of spacewalking that men weren't part of the action.

America's first female spacewalker from 35 years ago, Kathy 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.

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"We've got qualified women running the control, running space centers, commanding the station, commanding spaceships and doing spacewalks," Sullivan told The Associated Press this week. "And golly, gee whiz, every now and then there's more than one woman in the same place."

NASA leaders, Girl Scouts and others cheered on Koch and Meir. Parents also sent in messages of thanks and encouragement via social media. NASA included some in its TV coverage.

"Go girls go," two young sisters wrote on a sign in crayon. A group of middle schoolers held a long sign reading "The sky is not the limit!!"

At the same time, many expressed hope that this will become routine.

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Tracy Caldwell Dyson, a three-time spacewalker who looked on from Mission Control in Houston, added: "Hopefully, this will now be considered normal."

NASA originally wanted to conduct an all-female spacewalk last spring, but did not have enough medium-size spacesuits ready to go until summer. Koch and Meir were supposed to install more new batteries in a spacewalk next week, but had to venture out three days earlier to deal with an equipment failure that occurred over the weekend. 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.

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."

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Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi sent congratulations to Koch and Meir "for leaving their mark on history" and tweeted that they are 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. As the seven-hour spacewalk drew to a close, Mission Control declared success, informing the astronauts that the new charger seemed to be working and the space station was back to full power. The women dragged in the broken unit so it can be returned to Earth early next year for analysis.

"Jessica and Christina, we are so proud of you," said Morgan, one of four astronauts inside. He called them his "astrosisters."

Spacewalking widely is 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 are close friends. Theye also are former Girl Scouts.

Soviet cosmonaut Alexei Leonov, the world's first spacewalker, on March 18, 1965, 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.


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