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The Exquisite Boredom of Spacewalking

TheAtlantic 2019-10-09 21:08:36

Occasionally, a smudge of pale blue showed up in the corner of my screen as I watched Sunday’s live-stream: Earth. “Oh my goodness, it is gorgeous,” Drew Morgan said shortly after floating out of the air lock in his marshmallowy suit. Then he and his spacewalking partner, Christina Koch, got to work, their spacesuits alternately gleaming and darkening as the sun rose and set behind the Earth. Neither the people watching nor the astronauts themselves could sense that the station was cutting through space at 17,500 miles an hour.

Spacewalking is a rather inaccurate description of the actual activity that residents of the ISS periodically carry out. Koch and Morgan crawled along the space station using their hands, moving glove over glove along handrails bolted to the side of the ISS, shifting safety tethers from hook to hook as they traveled. They reminded me of woodpeckers scaling the side of a tree.

Read: Everything you never thought to ask about astronaut food

On Sunday, the spacewalkers took directions from Mission Control, in Houston, radioed through the atmosphere and into Snoopy-esque communications caps beneath their helmets. Stephanie Wilson, a former astronaut, kept telling Koch and Morgan to “translate” here or there. It took me a few seconds to realize that to translate during a spacewalk simply means to move.

The lexicon of spacewalking, I learned, is cryptic and humorless, combining into hyper-serious directions like “deploy the inboard gap-spanner chain.” That can obscure the fundamental coolness of some of the astronauts’ tools. A pistol-grip tool, for example, is a space drill. Tell me space drill doesn’t sound better. Koch and Morgan used the drill, along with other tools, to remove some nickel-hydrogen batteries and install more powerful lithium-ion batteries as part of an effort to upgrade the station’s power system. At one point, Koch pressed the drill to a bolt that needed loosening. Nothing happened, and after a moment, Koch laughed: She realized she hadn’t turned it on.

The indecipherable jargon, the staticky voices, the occasional beep of the radio—for a potentially life-threatening exercise, spacewalking has a surprisingly soothing soundtrack. I was folding laundry in my apartment, lost in my thoughts, when I realized Koch and Morgan were struggling to bolt down a loose plate. Their back-and-forth jolted me back to the spacewalk, but their voices were calm, steady. They eventually finagled the plate into place.

There were other moments when things seemed on the verge of going very wrong. Like when Mission Control asked the astronauts for a regular report on their spacesuits, and Morgan said that he noticed some peeling on the palm of his right glove; because astronauts work with their hands, their gloves are most susceptible to nicks and tears, which could expose them to the vacuum of space. Or when Koch found a shard of upturned metal on the station, perhaps knocked out of place by a micrometeoroid, and warned Morgan to watch out for it. Or—and this was the most nerve-racking—when Wilson radioed in at the end of the spacewalk to tell Morgan his safety tethers had snagged somewhere along his route back to the air lock.