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Astronaut Christina Koch On Her Journey From Space To A Nation In Lockdown

U.S. astronaut Christina Koch reacts shortly after the landing of the Russian Soyuz MS-13 space capsule about 150 km south-east of the Kazakh town of Zhezkazgan, Kazakhstan, Thursday, Feb. 6, 2020. (Sergei Ilnitsky/AP Photo)
U.S. astronaut Christina Koch reacts shortly after the landing of the Russian Soyuz MS-13 space capsule about 150 km south-east of the Kazakh town of Zhezkazgan, Kazakhstan, Thursday, Feb. 6, 2020. (Sergei Ilnitsky/AP Photo)

Astronaut Christina Koch spent a record 11 months in space, the longest spaceflight of any woman. She returned to Earth in February and is just completing her NASA-mandated readjustment period. What’s life like when you leave a space station, only to be confined in your own home under lockdown?


Christina Koch, NASA astronaut and former flight engineer on the International Space Station. She set the record for longest single spaceflight by a woman: 328 days. She and Jessica Meir performed the first all-female spacewalk. Koch has performed a total of six spacewalks. ( @Astro_Christina)

Interview Highlights

On her return to Earth

“Interestingly, being isolated onboard the space station, you are a lot farther from your friends, your family, your support network in physical terms. But the rest of the world for the most part during my mission was running. So, for example, something I shared recently is that while I may have been far from all of the earthly niceties, I was able to at least watch live sports on TV and feel connected in that way. You know, being under stay-at-home orders really for me has actually offered a lot more than the isolation that I experienced for 11 months onboard the International Space Station. So while it’s a lot less than what I thought I might be coming home to, comparatively, it’s actually given me quite a bit to take in. And looking at the positive side, it’s allowed me to really get comfortable with my home life, to reintegrate in my home and in my neighborhood. So I take it with appreciation in that sense.”

On what life has been like back at home

“The things that I expected to be able to do when I return, like traveling, getting to do outreach, and share my story more widely in a physical sense and be with people in that sense — being able to go into work every day — those things aren’t necessarily available to me like I thought they would be. But the rest of the things I can experience. I can eat normal food, I can make phone calls, I can experience nature outside my neighborhood. And so, you know, in some ways it’s so much more than what I had onboard the International Space Station, even if it’s not everything that I had expected.”

On the profoundness of space

“You recognize that it sustains us. You know, there is such a thing as a global scale when you can look down on the Earth and you see things beyond the regional scale, beyond the continental scale. But in the global scale, you recognize that that global scale means that the Earth can provide all the things that we as humanity need. And in that sense, it unites us. But in the same token, that providing of what we need isn’t necessarily guaranteed. When you notice it on the universal scale and with the universal backdrop, you see the thin blue line that defines our atmosphere and you recognize there’s complex systems in that atmosphere that provide us everything we need. But just as that global scale can provide a backdrop for things that we need, it also could potentially not provide the things we need. And it could potentially throw us curveballs that are also on a global scale.”

What lessons should humanity take away right now from your mission?

“The biggest one that I think about is humility. Recognizing that it’s OK to ask for help, to rely on the people around you. Being humbled, to be a part of something so great, to have been trained by experts, to be working with a team of people that are so good at what they do that can overcome these amazing engineering and scientific feats. So humility and incorporating that into my day to day has been a big take away of the mission.

“And then also, I would say building in resiliency, the human spaceflight program does a great job of this by making sure that we actually build in margin for everything we do, even though that might mean we take a hit on efficiency, we recognize that we always have to be ready for the unexpected. We don’t know when that emergency is going to come. So we need an excess of power from our solar arrays. We need an excess of energy from our crew members. We need an excess of time in our ops tempo to accommodate that. So just like this pandemic, maybe teaching us that there is a balance between efficiency and resiliency, I think recognizing how the example of human spaceflight really walks that line well has been a big takeaway for me.”

Listen: Christina Koch’s Space Playlist

From The Reading List

The Washington Post: “ ‘Become experts on the thing that is threatening you’: Advice from astronauts on isolation on Earth” — “Before living for months in space, Christina Koch lived at the South Pole and Chris Hadfield lived at the bottom of the ocean, in a laboratory just off the coast of Florida.”

Vanity Fair: “ Astronaut Jessica Meir Returns Home to a ‘Completely Different Planet’” — “On September 25, 2019, as dusk settled over the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, NASA astronaut Jessica Meir, along with two fellow crewmates, rocketed off to the International Space Station. On April 17, Meir returned—if not exactly to the world she left behind. Reentry has its usual set of potential discomforts. Some have described the so-called “soft landing” of the capsule as having the sudden jolt of a car accident; motion sickness may occur as the body adapts to gravity. But rejoining life on Earth during a pandemic is another matter entirely.”

BBC: “ Coronavirus: Space crew return to very different earth” — “No strangers to isolation, Russian Oleg Skrypochka and Jessica Meir from the US left Earth in September 2019, well before Covid-19 emerged. Another American, Andrew Morgan, has been on the ISS since July 2019. The coronavirus pandemic has changed the usual routine for returning space crews.”

Smithsonian Magazine: “ Christina Koch Returns to Earth After Breaking Spaceflight Record” — “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.”

New York Times: “ NASA Astronauts Complete the First All-Female Spacewalk” — “NASA reached a milestone on Friday when two Americans, tasked with replacing a power controller, ventured out of the International Space Station: the astronauts, Christina Koch and Jessica Meir, became the first to take part in an all-female spacewalk.”

Spotify’s ‘For The Record’: “ NASA Astronaut Christina Koch Shares How Music and Podcasts Made Groundbreaking Trip Extra-Stellar” — “NASA astronaut Christina Koch may have spent 328 consecutive days floating in space (the longest-ever single spaceflight for a woman), but her love for all things audio kept her firmly grounded throughout the journey.”

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.