The Exquisite Boredom of Spacewalking
A trip outside the International Space Station is, at its core, a home-improvement project.
Ask astronauts what spacewalking around the International Space Station is like, and they get a dreamy look on their face almost instantly. They might say something about how the view “just takes your breath away.” Or that the experience “is what it truly feels like to be on top of the world.” That “nothing compares to being alone in the universe; to that moment of opening the hatch and pulling yourself outside into the universe.”
But without the surreal view of Earth, spacewalking isn’t much more than hours of maintenance work in a sweaty spacesuit. Follow the script laid out in the training back home. Listen to detailed instructions from mission control, carry out the task without screwing up, repeat. After a while, the magical becomes the mundane.
I know this because I spent a recent Sunday watching astronauts spacewalk for seven hours straight. I didn’t have their view, of course, but the experience revealed a side of spacewalking that usually doesn’t come up in discussions about the marvels of living in outer space. After all, who wants to talk about the most tedious parts of their job?
NASA live-streams its spacewalks, but I’m warning you now: The camera quality is not great. Think less Gravity, and more ’90s home videos. The view toggles between cameras mounted on the astronauts’ helmets and those posted around the station. Most of the time, all you can see are the astronauts’ doughy gloves, the utilitarian hardware in front of them, and the tangle of tethers that keeps them attached to the station.
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.
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, an astronaut herself, 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.
It’s happening, I thought, as Morgan retraced his steps to the tangled cords and I folded another T-shirt, helpless. I thought of another spacewalk, back in 2013, that was cut short after a leak inside Luca Parmitano’s spacesuit caused his helmet to fill with water, nearly drowning the Italian astronaut.
Everything turned out fine. By the time he and Koch wriggled into the air lock, it was hard to tell whether their mics were picking up static or tired sighs. “It feels like we were gone forever,” Koch said, as two other astronauts pulled them back in from the repressurized compartment. When the live-stream ended, I felt as if I had emerged from a trance.
Astronauts have carried out 219 spacewalks around the ISS, and more are on the schedule. Sunday’s excursion was the first of 10 trips that NASA astronauts, in pairs, will make this fall to spruce up the station and refurbish a scientific instrument mounted on its exterior. Later this month, two women astronauts—Koch and Jessica Meir—are scheduled to spacewalk together, a first in history. An earlier attempt in March was scrapped because the station didn’t have enough medium-size suits for both of them in time for the walk. NASA received significant criticism from the public for the incident, and says it’s ready this time. While Koch and Meir dangle from their fingertips 260 miles above Earth, the rest of us will have to make do with a grainy live-stream that can never convey the wonder and fright.
Spacewalks, at their core, are home-improvement projects. The ISS has been humankind’s residence in space for two decades. Like much of NASA’s fleet of spacecraft, it’s aging, and it needs work. Charlie Bolden, the former NASA administrator under President Barack Obama, said at an engineering event this week that he thinks the station has “probably four to eight years” of life left. “The International Space Station is a machine,” Bolden said. “Machines break.”
The ISS was not designed to last forever. When the United States, Canada, Russia, Japan, and European nations started launching parts into orbit, in 1998, the end of the mission felt like a distant concern. The question comes up every few years, as decision makers reexamine the mission’s sizable price tag—$3 billion to $4 billion a year for the U.S.—and wonder whether they’re willing to keep paying it. The Trump administration has invited commercial companies to take over management of the station’s American side, but there are no takers yet. For now, the station’s fate is uncertain.
It’s a sad thought, especially after spending hours watching the people who are living there right now. Someday, the ISS, like orbital stations before it, could be deorbited and plunge into the ocean. It will go down covered in the glove prints of the people who built it, cared for it, and clung to it as they gazed at the blue marble below them.