Today Tim Peake, Britain’s man on the International Space Station, is taking part in his first spacewalk today.
Tim’s mission will be to carry out some vital maintenance on the ISS. Alongside station commander Tim Kopra (who is the more experienced astronaut) he will be replacing one of the “shunt” units on the side of the station, which has been out of action for some months. These units regulate electricity as it is transferred from the ISS’s gigantic solar panels, so fixing it will mean that the station runs at full capacity once again.
The second part of Tim’s mission will be to lay a 28m cable around the edge of the station and plug it in, which will form part of communications upgrade that will come online later this year.
That’s right – after all of those years of training, Major Tim Peake is the world’s most expensive electrician.
But don’t be fooled. Even though the space walk, or extravehicular activity (EVA) as they’re known by the professionals, is a now standard part of astronaut training, they are still hugely difficult and massively dangerous.
Don’t believe us? Then here’s five space walk factoids that might make you think twice before slipping on your space helmet and making a dash for the airlock.
The first spacewalker: Alexey Leonov
We all remember the Space Race as a competition that was won by the Americans when Neil Armstrong stepped out on to the Moon, but before that moment it was surely the Russians who held the lead. Not only were the Russians the first to launch an artificial satellite (Sputnik), the first to launch a man into space (Yuri Gagarin, in 1957) and get a woman into space (Valentina Tereshkova in 1963 - beating America by 20 years), but they also were responsible for the first spacewalk.
Alexey Leonov had the dubious honour of being the first human subjected to the vacuum of space on March 18th 1965 during the Voskhod 2 mission. In a suit that sounds like it was crudely adapted from the ones designed for inside use, he spent 12 minutes and 9 seconds outside. It wasn’t plain sailing though – during the walk his suit ballooned due to pressure difference, to the point where he was unable to get back inside the capsule.
Speaking at the Science Museum last month, he explained how he had to break protocol to get back in: He instead re-entered the airlock headfirst, and had to manually reduce the pressure on the suit - risking decompression sickness - in order to remain flexible enough to correctly slide in and shut the hatch. At the time, he didn’t even reveal this to his colleagues on the ground. Since the end of the Cold War, it has since been revealed that he was also drenched in sweat for most of the walk and was at severe risk of heatstroke. Perhaps this is why the Soviet space agency supplied him with suicide pills, just in case he couldn’t get back inside?
Amazingly, this isn’t the full extent of the pain he suffered. When he returned to Earth with fellow cosmonaut Pavel Belyayev, they landed not a long way off course in the region of Perm Krai, during the middle of a harsh winter.
Though the recovery team was able to fly over the landing site to figure out where they were, they were unable to land in the forest – which meant that the astronauts were forced to spend the night inside their landing module, hoping they wouldn’t freeze. Though rescuers were able to reach them on skies the day after, they were unable to evacuate them, meaning that they spent yet another night in a hastily constructed log cabin. Now that’s hardcore.
In his later life, Leonov became an artist and painted a self-portrait of himself space walking while orbiting over the Black Sea and Crimea. He jokes that even back then, Russia had its eye on the disputed peninsula.
The first American spacewalk came two years later in 1965, during the Gemini 4 mission, when Ed White did something similar to Alexei Leonov before him. He exited his craft and spent 23 minutes floating around. But it wasn’t without its own dangers.
The start of the walk had problems. When White and his co-astronaut James McDivitt tried to open the hatch, to let White out, the latches didn’t move. Amazingly though, this is a story in the virtue of training hard, as coincidentally McDivitt had encountered the same problem on the ground in a test inside a vacuum chamber. He knew which spring in the mechanism was causing it, so was able to coach white into getting it open.
During the EVA itself, in addition to similar ballooning problems to Alexey Leonov, there was also a big communications problem with the in-suit microphone that was supposed to be activated by voice. In the end, only “push to talk” mode worked.
Perhaps even worse, for the duration on the walk White was unable to talk to the ground, with instructions instead having to be relayed via McDivitt in the capsule. That meant that, for an entire complex EVA, there wasn’t much communication with the ground.
Poor Al Worden, commander of the Apollo 15 mission. Not only did he get the unlucky job of flying all the way to the Moon without getting to land on the surface with his colleagues, but on the way back – on what was then a record breaking eleventh day of the mission – he had the unenviable task of retrieving the film from a camera on the outside of the craft.
Yep, back in those days you couldn’t just synchronise it wirelessly with your phone and download the photos.
This necessitated a space walk out in deep space, much further out than anyone had walked before (or since).
Three’s a Crowd
Every space walk in history has so far been a one or two person affair – with one exception. In 1992, during Shuttle mission STS-49, three astronauts simultaneously pulled on their suits and headed outside in a mission that sounds like the sort of thing you’d find in Thunderbirds.
The mission was to capture a satellite that had been launched a couple of years earlier and had ended up in the wrong orbit. The plan was that they would grab it, and then boost the Intelsat VI into its intended geosynchronous orbit.
If that isn’t crazy enough, how it played out is even more movie-like. After two EVAs of two astronauts were unable to manage the procedure, the crew took a day floating in space to brainstorm. According to AmericaSpace, it was when the crew had switched off communications with the ground to fool NASA into thinking they had gone to sleep that one of them suggested taking the unprecedented step of sending three people out simultaneously. There were four suits on the Shuttle, so why not?
When the crew pitched it to their colleagues on the ground, they were nervous because three people had never been attempted for safety reasons. How would everyone fit into the airlock? Could it really be done? Remember, usually spacewalks are planned with endless practice and precision – could they really do this on the fly?
After performing a run-through in a swimming pool back on Earth with some stand-ins, NASA finally greenlit the crew’s plan and Richard Hieb, Thomas Akers and Pierre Thuot suited up and added another major milestone to humanity’s short space history. Needless to say, with the perfect movie ending, they were successful in finally snaring the satellite.
Commander Dan Brandenstein later called it “one of those missions from hell”.
Commander Hadfield - The tears in his eyes
And finally…. Commander Chris Hadfield, who found fame in 2014 when his tweets and videos from the International Space Station caused a social media sensation. But he isn’t just a pretty face. Hadfield is a space veteran and is almost sickeningly accomplished – and is a nice bloke too.
Hadfield though has been into space three times during his space career, and back in 2001 during his first stay on the ISS performed an EVA to install the robotic “Canada Arm”.
Unfortunately, he experienced trouble when the anti-fog solution used on his visor caused “severe eye irritation”, which in effect temporarily blinded him. If that isn’t scary enough, to solve it, he had to vent oxygen from his suit. Yikes.
Hadfield has also since described the strange sensation of floating in space waiting for instructions. Because space walks are all intricately choreographed, if something unexpected happens the team on the ground will tell the astronaut to simply wait for the experts at base to discuss and recommend a solution. That’s right - if you go temporarily blind during a space walk, the best thing to do might be simply to float and wait, until someone else figures it out.