Aboard the International Space Station, astronaut Christina Koch could watch the sun rise and set on Earth 16 times per day on all 328 days of her mission. Now, having completed the longest spaceflight ever achieved by a woman, Koch has returned to Earth where she can view the sunrise in the morning and sunset in the evening from the comfort of her home in Galveston, Texas.
“Oh, how I miss the wind on my face, the feeling of raindrops, sand on my feet and the sound of the surf crashing on the Galveston beach," Koch said in anticipation of her arrival. "We take daily sensory inputs for granted until they are absent … I cannot wait to feel and hear Earth again."
Koch surpassed American astronaut Peggy Whitson’s previous record of 288 days of spaceflight, and was just 12 days shy of Scott Kelly’s all-time record of 340 days in space. Koch’s mission will give researchers a new look into the long-term effects of spaceflight on women, as NASA prepares to land the first woman on the moon and plans human exploration missions to Mars. Koch returned to Earth with two other astronauts in Russia’s Soyuz MS-13 spacecraft on February 6 around 12:50 a.m. local time when the craft landed in Kazakhstan.
“I am so overwhelmed and happy right now,” Koch said as she exited the craft. After 11 months in orbit, the astronaut smiled, gave a thumbs-up and was helped into a chair for a post-flight check-up. Russian space officials said all three astronauts are healthy, NBC News reports.
During Koch’s time in space, she participated in and conducted a variety of research. Per CNN, she taste-tested fresh Mizuna mustard greens grown on the station, opening the door for potentially more fresh food on the ISS. Koch worked with the Advanced Combustion via Microgravity Experiments Chamber, which developed a broader understanding of the ways that fire reacts and behaves in space. And the astronaut was involved in the hardware for the Cold Atom Laboratory, which chilled atom clouds to the tiniest degree above absolute zero, giving scientists the ability to study aspects of atoms that were impossible to observe until now.
She also participated in the vertebral strength investigation, which centered on developing ways to counteract the impact of spaceflight, particularly limiting forces astronauts face during launch. Koch also was integral in the kidney cells investigation, which gathers data about kidney health in space and may help develop new treatments for kidney stones and osteoporosis.
Koch also studied how a protein key in the growth of tumors and cancer crystallizes in microgravity. Because crystals grow larger in microgravity, the study’s findings could lead to more efficient cancer treatments. Koch even helped install the BioFabrication Facility, which has the ability to print organ-like tissues in space, CNN reports.
As NASA plans to return to the moon by 2024 and eventually to Mars, the need to understand space travel’s effect on a wide range of human bodies becomes more important than ever. While not understood, women and men are known to adapt to space in different ways, as Varsha Jain, a University of Edinburgh gynecologist who studies reproductive health for NASA, told BBC's Darren McKenzie last year.
Milestones for Women in Space
Koch’s work as a role model for more inclusive missions predates her time in space. She pursued degrees in electrical engineering at North Carolina State University before completing the NASA Academy program at Goddard Space Flight Center in 2001 where she became an expert on space science instrument development, reports Esther Addley at The Guardian. NASA—after decades of marginalizing the women who impacted its space programs—has worked to improve female representation. In Koch’s 2013 graduating class alone, there was a 50/50 gender split.
Both she and Meir became the first two women to venture outside the ISS at the same time, when the two replaced a failed power controller over the course of seven hours. Koch would end up completing six spacewalks over her 11-month spaceflight, including an additional two with Meir. In total, she spent 42 hours and 15 minutes outside of the ISS.
“It symbolizes exploration by all that dare to dream and work hard to achieve that dream,” Koch said after reentering the space station in October 2019. “Not only that, it’s a tribute to those who paved the way for us to be where we are, and we hope an inspiration to all future explorers.”
As Koch travels from Kazakhstan to Texas, she’s already thinking about what’s next. She hasn’t ruled out the opportunity for another mission just yet, Koch tells CNN. Perhaps she’ll even return to top her own record—either way she hopes it doesn’t last for long.
"My number one hope for this milestone is that the record is exceeded again as soon as possible," she said in a press conference in December. "Because that means that we're continuing to push the boundaries."