NASA astronaut Christina Hammock Koch ended a lengthy tenure on the International Space Station last Thursday when she and two colleagues returned to Earth, landing in a remote desert in the middle of Kazakhstan. Doing so, she put her name in the record books: the longest single spaceflight by a woman at 328 days. It’s a record that will stand for a long time to come.
We can’t help feeling a bit of hometown pride in Koch because, while she was born in Michigan, she grew up in Jacksonville. She graduated from the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics in Durham in 1997 and earned bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering and physics and a master’s degree in electrical engineering from N.C. State in Raleigh. No doubt she took the best parts of N.C. with her when she was selected for candidate training at NASA in 2013.
During her time on the ISS, Koch took part in six spacewalks, leading to a total of 42 hours and 15 minutes floating outside the station. In October, Koch and NASA astronaut Jessica Meir performed the first all-female spacewalk. Koch said she and Meir appreciated that their spacewalk “could serve as an inspiration for future space explorers.”
“We both drew a lot of inspiration from seeing people that were reflections of ourselves as we were growing up and developing our dreams to become astronauts,” Koch told The Associated Press from the space station. “So to recognize that maybe we could pay that forward and serve the same for those that are up and coming was just such a highlight.
“Diversity is important, and I think it is something worth fighting for,” she said. We agree.
Koch’s record falls 12 days short of the record for a single spaceflight by an American, that of retired astronaut Scott Kelly, who lived on the ISS for 340 consecutive days. Astronaut Peggy Whitson holds the record for the total days in space by any NASA astronaut, at 665.
Returning to a gravity-rich environment, Koch will no doubt go through a period of physical readjustment that will be dizzying at times, just as Kelly described in his 2018 book “Endurance.” Living without the firm grip of the Earth is just one of the challenges that must be confronted if we’re to have even a semi-permanent presence on the moon — or send human beings to Mars — goals in which the Trump administration has expressed interest.
“When we send humans to Mars, we need data on the long-term effects of space on the human body,” Ellen Stofan, a former chief scientist at NASA who now runs the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, said. “And we know there are differences between how men and women react to space.”
There are also psychological challenges to meet. Before her return, Koch said, “Oh, how I miss the wind on my face, the feeling of raindrops, sand on my feet and the sound of surf crashing on Galveston Beach.”
Koch said it was crucial to stay connected to loved ones — including her husband, Bob — through phone calls and video conferences.
She also expressed an interest in chips and salsa, which she hadn’t eaten in almost 11 months.
As we encourage our youth to pursue STEM topics — science, technology, engineering and math — and we’d add art to make it STEAM — we can point them to Koch as an example of someone with N.C. connections who pushed the limits of human knowledge and endurance, blazing a trail for others to follow.