Move over Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong: NASA astronaut Christina Koch has earned her place among the most inspirational figures of space exploration in human history.
After spending a record-setting 328 days aboard the International Space Station, the astronaut made a jubilant return to Earth early morning on Thursday.
In a short video released by NASA, Koch's celebratory mood is clear — and so it should be. As two assistants haul Koch out from the cramped spacecraft that carried her home, she gives a joyful thumbs up as she breathes fresh air for the first time in almost a year.
During her time in space, Koch smashed records and set new precedents for NASA that changed the future of human space exploration forever. Among her myriad achievements, Koch:
- Broke the record for longest single spaceflight by a female astronaut.
- Completed the second longest single spaceflight ever by an astronaut of any gender.
- Orbited 5,248 around Earth.
- Made a journey of 139 million miles — roughly 291 trips to the Moon and back.
- Took part in the first all-female spacewalk.
- Spent almost two days floating outside the ISS in space.
Let's take a closer look at Koch's historic mission.
328 days in space
Koch arrived on the space station on March 14, 2019. She came as a member of Expedition 59, which began in March 2019 and ended in June that same year. But though the mission ended, she stayed onboard the craft, becoming a crew member of Expedition 60 (June 2019 - October 2019) and Expedition 61 (October 2019 - February 2020).
During Expedition 59, Koch and her crewmates conducted experiments to discover how microgravity affects the human body — crucial knowledge if humans want to spend increasingly long periods in space (like on a trip to Mars, for example). They also studied Earth's atmosphere and tested robots that could fly in space outside the station.
In Expedition 60, Koch and her fellow space travelers 3D printed biological tissue and conducted experiments looking at how different forms of matter, like liquids, behave in the unique environments offered by space.
Then, as part of Expedition 61, Koch and colleagues fixed up one of the ISS' instruments, the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, a particle physics experiment that is mounted on the outside of the station. They also tried out a vest designed to protect the human body from the affects of space radiation. And, as if that wasn't enough, they took giant steps on the path to human exploration of Mars and the Moon, by test-driving a rover based here on Earth from space.
Over the course of her 328 days in space, Koch set a new record for longest single spaceflight by a female astronaut, and can claim the second longest single spaceflight by an astronaut of any gender.
One giant leap for humanity
Koch is a record-smashing astronaut. She ranks seventh among any astronaut ever for overall time in space, orbiting 5,248 around Earth.
She completed a journey of 139 million miles, which is roughly the equivalent of 291 trips to the Moon and back, according to NASA.
During her time on the ISS, she participated in six spacewalks. And, on October 18 2019, Koch made history as she took part in the first all-female spacewalk ever held, with fellow astronaut Jessica Meir.
“I think it’s important because of the historical nature of what we’re doing, and in the past women haven’t always been at the table,” Koch said during a live feed from the ISS ahead of the spacewalk.
Koch spent a total of 42 hours and 15 minutes floating outside of the space station.
An astronaut and a scientist
While onboard the ISS, Koch took part in more than 200 scientific research projects.
She spent a lot of her time gardening on the space station, conducting a number of botany studies that will help scientists better understand how gravity affects plant biology. Some of her carefully tended crops were even eaten by the crew after the experiment was done.
The astronaut also took part in an experiment to study how flames behave in microgravity to help improve fuel efficiency in space.
Aside from vegetables and fire, Koch also conducted experiments on human health, and how it is affected by spaceflight and microgravity. One of the experiments involved testing innovative treatments for kidney stones and toxic chemical exposure.
But despite the importance of such knowledge, there is scant data on human health in space, because too few people have actually spent time there.
By measuring how 11 months in space affected Koch’s health, scientists can gather information that will help with future human spaceflight missions to the moon and Mars.
NASA’s upcoming Artemis mission hopes to send the first woman to the moon by the year 2024 — so Koch’s time aboard the ISS could not be more valuable.
What will Koch miss about the ISS?
Koch's time on the ISS has been memorable, to say the least. The astronaut has helped pave the way for better inclusion of female astronauts in future space exploration, and gathered critical information to enable humans to keep pushing further into space.
But while the return to Earth must be sweet, we have to agree: There is something undeniably exquisite about the view from the ISS of Earth. Now that is a perspective on the planet that many of us will never have.