Science

Women on Historic Spacewalk Pause to Politely Correct Man’s Error

Trump
Donald Trump on the phone with the two astronauts, who were in space.
Win McNamee/Getty Images

Friday morning, two women in the process of making history paused to take a call from a man.

Astronauts Christina Koch and Jessica Meir were floating outside the International Space Station on a mission to replace a battery, a several-hour-long ordeal. “Space station, this is President Donald Trump, do you hear me?” Trump started the call, with Vice President Mike Pence and first daughter Ivanka Trump on either side, cameras in front of them. “We’re thrilled to be speaking live with two brave American astronauts,” he continued in his remarks, appearing to read from some notes. “This is the first time for a woman outside of the space station.”

That is very incorrect: The first woman went outside of a space station in 1984. Women have been spacewalking for a while since. What is unique about Friday is that this is the first time everyone outside of the space station is a woman.

Koch and Meir were polite about the error. After some further remarks from Trump (“you’re right now on television all over the world, so don’t get nervous”), one of the astronauts responded: “We don’t want to take too much credit because there have been many other female spacewalkers before us. This is just the first time there have been two women outside at the same time, and it’s really interesting for us, we’ve talked a lot about it up here, for us, this is really just us doing our jobs.”

It’s a frustrating bit of audio to listen to. No matter what their political views, astronauts, as government employees, clearly must be polite to their (ultimate) boss. And it makes practical sense why they would be gracious about even something as large as botching the entire reason why everyone was gathered in front of national TV cameras. (Again, there were even notes in front of him!) But it grates to hear two women who are making history have to pause to gently—always gently—explain their history-making.

Another astronaut seemed to be sticking to the yay-female-empowerment script. Ann McClain was supposed to be part of the first all-women spacewalk, which was supposed to happen back in March. That spacewalk was canceled because NASA didn’t have two suits in the correct size for women. It was surely a major personal disappointment for McClain, but here’s the extremely gracious statement she sent out: “You know, success is good,” she tweeted, with a link to watch the historical event that should have been hers. “But watching two people you love succeed, knowing you got to share part of their journey? That’s really the best. That’s the kind of deep down happiness that’s hard to explain. My BFFs are the BEST!” (It makes her portrayal, by Saturday Night Live’s Aidy Bryant, of a woman with absolutely every right to be mad instead masking her emotions behind a huge grin seem extremely accurate.)

The all-women spacewalk is great. But it’s also the kind of thing that should have happened long ago—and in fact, would have happened at least in March if NASA thought about simple things like building spacesuits to accommodate the astronauts it employs. May this spacewalk inspire young astronauts of the future. May they also grow up getting a message from—well, somewhere—that they don’t have to be so goddamn pleasant once they get there.