328 days in space: Astronaut Christina Koch returns to Earth after making history, breaking ground for women

After spending 328 days on the International Space Station – the longest amount of time any woman astronaut has been in space continuously – NASA's Christina Koch admits she's happy to set foot on solid ground.

In an interview last week, Koch said she was eager to experience some very simple pleasures now that she's back on Earth. Among them, "the feeling of wind on my face".

If there's anything she's miss about her time in the orbiting space lab, it would be "the friendship of her crewmates" and "the spectacular views", she told the Guardian.

Koch was launched alongside fellow NASA astronaut Nick Hague and Russian cosmonaut Alexey Ovchinin on a shuttle 14 March 2019. Her 328-day mission in space was also her first journey into space, and the second-longest spaceflight by any American astronaut, and places her seventh on the list of the combined total time that American astronauts have spent in space on one or more missions.

Christina Koch is helped out of the Soyuz MS-13 spacecraft minutes after she, Roscosmos Alexander Skvortsov, and ESA Luca Parmitano, land near Zhezkazgan, Kazakhsthan. Image: NASA

Supporting NASA’s goals for future human landings on the Moon, Koch completed 5,248 orbits of the Earth and a journey of 139 million miles, roughly the equivalent of 291 trips to the Moon and back. She conducted six spacewalks during  11 months on orbit, including the first three all-woman spacewalks, spending 42 hours and 15 minutes outside the station. She witnessed the arrival of a dozen visiting spacecraft and the departure of another dozen.

During her 11 months on orbit, Koch managed to successfully conduct six spacewalks — among them, three of the first all-woman spacewalks in history. She also saw a dozen visiting spacecrafts arrive, and a dozen of them departure from the space station during her time there.

Koch, who is both a talented engineer and a willing subject of science, undertook an extended space mission for researchers at NASA to study the effects of prolonged spaceflight on the health and wellbeing of a woman. This is something NASA is (just as space agencies all over the world are) keen on exploring. NASA has plans to return humans to the Moon with the Artemis program, slated for 2025. With Artemis, NASA will land what would be the first woman astronaut in the world to set foot on the Moon, and eventually, Mars.

NASA astronauts Jessica Meir and Christina Koch embarked on the first all-female spacewalk, in October 2019. Image: NASA

While it's easy to see how quickly Koch could become a role model figure for young women and girls world over. Both Koch and her fellow astronaut Jessica Mier who performed the all-woman spacewalk with Koch, are aware of their impact.

"We both drew a lot of inspiration from seeing people who were reflections of ourselves as we were growing up, and developing our dreams to become astronauts," Koch said in an interview from space after the walk. "Diversity is important, and it is something worth fighting for."

That said, Koch's gender could easily be the least significant thing about her. An electrical engineer and physics grad from North Carolina, Koch's career before being an astronaut was rooted in developing space science instruments and engineering for remote scientific fields like Antarctica and Alaska. Her research at the space station involved studying how protein crystals grow in space, and their potential use in treating Alzheimer’s and Parkinsons disease.

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