On her 289th day at the International Space Station, astronaut Christina Koch set the record for the longest spaceflight by a woman.
The previous record was set by former station commander Peggy Whitson, who crewed the ISS in 2016-17. Koch, an electrical engineer from Livingston, Montana, arrived at the ISS in early March, where she has conducted scientific research on simulated lunar soil, called regolith, and 3D printing of biological tissues. The milestone isn’t Koch’s first; just a few months ago, she took part in the first all-female spacewalk.
"I think that highlighting it was the first all-female EVA, [or] spacewalk, is important because seeing those milestones be broken tells people where we are at and where we think the importance lies," Koch tells Space’s Robert Pearlman. "I think it is inspiring because future space explorers do need to see people who remind them of themselves."
After receiving her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in electrical engineering and physics from North Carolina State University, Koch graduated from the NASA Academy program and worked at Goddard Space Flight Center. She also completed research at the South Pole and in Greenland, and designed instruments for probes orbiting Jupiter and Earth, News & Observer’s Ashad Hajela and Kate Murphy report.
Space flight, however, has been a lifelong ambition. As her younger sister told the News & Observer, “It’s something she always wanted and she’s always been really focused on.”
The world record for the longest spaceflight is held by Valery Polyakov, a cosmonaut whose 438-day mission was spent on Russia's space station in 1994 and 1995, Pearlman reports.
Koch will remain on the space station through February, at which point she will have been in spaceflight for a total of 328 days. At that point, she’ll be less than two weeks short of the longest space flight by a U.S. astronaut, a 340-day trip completed by Scott Kelly over the course of 2015 and 2016. Like Kelly’s mission, which compared the astronaut’s vitals to his identical twin’s over the course of their time in space, the sheer duration of Koch’s stay at the ISS provides a valuable opportunity for research.
Likewise, it’s important to understand how space affects both male and female bodies in order to make space exploration safer for all future astronauts. (This lesson was demonstrated earlier this year when the first all-female spacewalk was initially postponed due to limited access to properly-fitting spacesuits for the women on board the ISS at the time.) As NASA’s Artemis program looks toward extended stays on the moon, including landing the first woman on the lunar surface, and eventually trips to Mars, it’s increasingly important to study the long-term effects of microgravity on human health. “It is a wonderful thing for science,” Koch said in a press conference.
Reflecting on her achievement, she tells Space’s Pearlman, “I like to think of the record as not so much about how many days you're up here, but what you bring to each day, so [it is] another great reminder to just bring your best.”
But Koch doesn’t want to hold the record for long, emphasizing that she’d like to see more female astronauts spend extended stays on the ISS, Koch explains to CNN’s Christi Paul.
“My biggest hope for the record is that it’s exceeded as soon as possible,” she says.