Defying Gravity, Part 8

The gURLs who Spacewalk

Spacewalking astronauts are big right now thanks to a certain blockbuster movie full of A-List Hollywood Stars. In preparing for her role in Gravity, actress Sandra Bullock turned to real-life astronaut Cady Coleman for advice about what life in space is really like. But the big screen is obviously nothing like the real thing.

Stepping outside of a spacecraft that is orbiting our planet at speeds of thousands (and thousands) of miles per hour is a frightening prospect. So who are the brave women that have actually performed this heroic work in real life?

To this day, eleven women have made the journey. At number eight is astronaut Heidemarie Stefanyshyn-Piper.

Heidemarie Stefanyshyn-Piper. Credit: NASA
Astronaut Heidemarie M. Stefanyshyn-Piper, STS-115 mission specialist, pauses for a moment during the Sept. 12 spacewalk, which she shared with astronaut Joseph R. Tanner. Credit: NASA

Heidemarie Stefanyshyn-Piper

With five separate EVAs over two spaceflights, Heidemarie Stefanyshyn-Piper logged an impressive 33 hours and 42 minutes spacewalking. Her missions were aboard the Space Shuttle Atlantis (STS-115) and Space Shuttle Endeavor (STS-126). Stefanyshyn-Piper also served as commander of the 12th expedition of NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations (NEEMO 12). 

Stefanyshyn-Piper is one of the most experienced spacewalkers in the US, but no matter how well you’re trained, spaceflight can be unpredictable. During one of her spacewalks, Stefanyshyn-Piper ‘dropped’ something in orbit. While outside of the Space Shuttle, she noticed a large amount of grease on the tool bag. When she was cleaning the grease with a dry wipe, one of her crew lock bags drifted away. The bag didn’t pose a risk to the station, and eventually burned up in the Earth’s atmosphere west of Mexico.  

It may not have been a high point of the mission, but listening to her describe the incident is an amazing showcase of just how difficult and dangerous it is to maneuver and perform tasks while floating free in space.


“I remember coming out with my feet and, and going, “OK, I’ve got to go slow.” I started to go out and all of a sudden I felt resistance and the first thought was, “Oh, great! I’m going to get stuck.” And then I thought about it and I said, “OK, it’s probably my backpack, the life support system hitting the back of the hatch.” So I straightened out my body and then I came out fine __. But the thought was, “Oh, this is great! My first time out on a spacewalk and I get stuck!” but luckily that didn’t happen.” – Heidemarie Stefanyshyn-Piper on her first spacewalk, from


In this interview with the Associated Press, Heidemarie Stefanyshyn-Piper describes the disheartening experience of ‘dropping’ a tool bag in orbit. Credit: The Associated Press.

Heidemarie Stefanyshyn-Piper releases restrains on the International Space Station’s solar arrays during a spacewalk. Joseph R. Tanner is partially visible at the top of the frame. Credit: NASA