Most expeditions to the International Space Station last for six months, but astronaut Christina Koch is due to spend a much longer period of time on board the spacecraft. As Gizmodo’s George Dvorsky reports, Koch arrived at the ISS on March 14 and will remain in orbit until February 2020, per a new mission schedule released by NASA. If all goes according to plan, Koch will stay in space for an estimated 328 days, which will be the longest single spaceflight ever completed by a woman.
Former NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson is the current title holder; she spent 288 days in space between 2016 and 2017. Koch’s planned mission will bring her just short of the longest-ever spaceflight by a NASA astronaut, a record set by Scott Kelly, who completed 340 days in orbit. Russian cosmonaut Valeri Polyakov, who was on board the Mir space station for 437 days in 1994 and 1995, holds the all-time record.
This March, Koch and Anne McClain were assigned to take part in what was supposed to be the first all-female spacewalk—a history-making moment that never came to because McClain’s spacesuit did not fit her properly. That setback, however, does not seem to have dampened Koch’s for her upcoming milestone mission.
“It feels awesome,” Koch said is a NASA video. “I have known that this was a possibility for a long time, and it’s truly a dream come true to know that I can continue to work on the program that I have valued so highly my whole life. To be able to contribute to that and give my best every day to that for as long as possible is a true honor and a dream come true.”
NASA’s mission schedule revealed that Jessica Meir is due to embark on her first spaceflight in September and will return to Earth in spring 2020. NASA astronaut Andrew Morgan is also making his first space flight, but will be undertaking an even longer stay on board the ISS; he’s taking off this July and will return with Meir next spring.
These types of extended missions help scientists gain a better understanding of what happens to the human body during prolonged periods in space—data that is important to collect before sending astronauts on long-term missions to the moon and Mars. Recently, NASA released an extensive study of Kelly and his twin brother Mark, who is also an astronaut but remained on the ground while Scott spent nearly a year in space. A comparison of the brothers’ health data suggested that extended time in orbit can impact everything from gut microbiome, to gene expression, to cognition. But more research is needed to fully understand the implications of these results.
Koch, who has a background in electrical engineering and physics, is certainly ready to do her part. “One month down. Ten to go,” she wrote on Twitter following the news of her extended mission. "Today the possibility has become reality.”