Women have been walking in space for decades, but there had never been a spacewalk involving more than one female astronaut at a time until this past week. On Oct. 18, NASA’s Christina Koch and Jessica Meir teamed up on an historic walk, performing maintenance work on the International Space Station.
As might be expected, the two were congratulated over the phone by the president of the United States. But the president, awkwardly, mischaracterized their achievement.
“This is the first time for a woman outside of the space station,” Donald Trump said incorrectly, ignoring the work of Svetlana Savitskaya, a Russian astronaut who spacewalked in 1984, and the 14 women (including ones from NASA) who followed her.
Koch, in fact, participated in a spacewalk in March, when she was supposed to be accompanied by Anne McClain. McClain didn’t join, possibly—although not officially—because her ex-wife accused her of what appeared to be the first space cybercrime. NASA denied that the allegations forced the cancellation, saying it simply didn’t have two appropriately sized spacesuits for the women astronauts.
In any case, Koch didn’t correct the president’s error. Instead it was Meir who schooled the president over the phone when he tried to compliment the astronauts and again got the import of their work and the event wrong. “You are amazing people,” he said. “They’re conducting the first-ever female spacewalk to replace an exterior part of the space station. They’re doing some work, and they’re doing it in a very high altitude—an altitude that very few people will ever see.”
Meir gently deflected the compliment, telling Trump, “We don’t want to take too much credit because there have been many other female spacewalkers before. This is the first time that there’s been two women outside at the same time.”
But it was not the first time that a female astronaut had to school the president on space, a topic he claims to hold near and dear. As The Verge notes, in 2017, Trump asked NASA’s Peggy Whitson when she thought astronauts would be on Mars following the signing of a new bill outlining such a project. Having signed the legislation, Trump should have had some idea, but he did not. “Well I think as your bill directed, it’ll be approximately in the 2030s,” Whitson replied.
Arguably, it may be harder to figure out the timeline for Mars travel set out in legislation than it is to recall the simple fact that Trump got wrong on his recent space call. Certainly, the latest mistake is more egregious for its ignorance. The difference between an “all-female” spacewalk and a “female” spacewalk may seem small, but it’s actually a huge detail that reveals the depths of Trump’s indifference to history and his profound inability to grasp critically important details.