Christina Hammock Koch: Record-breaking NASA astronaut

Christina Koch on the space station during Expedition 60.
Christina Koch on the space station during Expedition 60. (Image credit: NASA Johnson)

On Jan. 9, 2020, NASA astronaut Christina Koch celebrated her 300th day in space aboard the International Space Station (ISS). By the time she landed back on Earth on Feb. 6, she had broken the record for the longest time spent in space by a woman.

That's not the only historic achievement for the astronaut. Just a few months prior, Koch and another woman astronaut, Jessica Meir, completed the first all-woman spacewalk

The spacewalk made "sure that NASA was really committed to, like I like to say, answering humanity's call to explore by everyone," Koch told a year after the momentous event. "And so it was just a wonderful thing to have the honor to participate in. And I think that we're just so appreciative still to receive the support that we still receive every day about it," she said.

Related: Women in space — A Gallery of firsts

Early life and career

Koch was born in Grand Rapids, Michigan and grew up in Jacksonville, North Carolina. From a young age, she wanted to be an astronaut, and joined her middle school's "Rocket Club." Trips to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida only solidified that dream, she told Jon Evans on his podcast.

Koch attended North Carolina State University in Raleigh and completed a bachelor's in electrical engineering as well as a bachelor's in physics. She then completed a Master's in electrical engineering.

After completing her degrees, Koch joined NASA as an electrical engineer at the Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC) in Greenbelt, Maryland. While at GSFC, Koch worked in the Laboratory for High Energy Astrophysics on instruments for several space science missions. After her time at GSFC, Koch worked in Antarctica at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station and Palmer Station. From there, she returned to her electrical engineering roots and worked at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, contributing to instruments on the Juno spacecraft and Van Allen probes. 

Life as an astronaut

In 2013, Koch was selected as a member of NASA's 21st astronaut class. After six years of intense training, she launched on her first space mission to the ISS on March 14, 2019 from Baikonur Cosmodrome on a Soyuz spacecraft. She was joined by astronaut Nick Hague and Russian Cosmonaut Alexey Ovchinin. 

Related: How to become an astronaut

In her tenure on the ISS, Koch served as a flight engineer on expeditions 59, 60 and 61. While aboard the ISS, Koch worked on several scientific studies that covered human biology, Earth science, technology development and more. She also completed three all-woman spacewalks out of her six total spacewalks, spending a total of 42 hours and 15 minutes in the vacuum of space.

Christina Koch on the International Space Station during the beginning of her nearly year-long stay.

Christina Koch on the International Space Station during the beginning of her nearly year-long stay.  (Image credit: NASA)

First all-woman spacewalk

Oct. 18, 2019, wasn't originally supposed to be a historic day. The first woman spacewalk was supposed to occur on March 29th, but an issue with space suit sizes delayed that plan. 

NASA's space suits are a marvel of engineering — they're essentially tiny, human-shaped spaceships. The most important part of the spacesuit is a hard plastic torso piece that holds the electronics that control all the suit's systems. An ill-fitted spacesuit can lead to serious safety issues, and reconfiguring the suit can take up to 12 hours. Koch and her colleague Anne McClain were scheduled to participate in a spacewalk together, but there was only one spacesuit made to fit McClain or Koch, so McClain swapped places with her colleague Nick Hauge so that Koch could wear the one spacesuit that fit both women.

Related: Astronauts won't make the 1st all female spacewalk afterall

By October, the crew had reconfigured another suit to fit Jessica Mier, who then joined Koch on the first all-woman spacewalk. For more than seven hours, the pair worked on replacing a battery charge/discharge unit that failed to activate after new lithium ion batteries were installed. 

Koch returned to Earth on Feb. 6, 2020, after having spent 328 days in space, setting the record for the longest space mission by a woman. She returned just as the Covid-19 pandemic was beginning and Americans were preparing for the possibility of a wide-spread quarantine. 

But coming back to a world on the cusp of a pandemic didn't feel as isolating it could have for Koch, she told Boston's WBUR radio. "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 on board the International Space Station … it's allowed me to really get comfortable with my home life, to reintegrate in my home and in my neighborhood," she said.

Related: NASA astronaut Christina Koch reflects on 1-year anniversary of first all-woman spacewalk

Koch's legacy

Space travel has traditionally been designed for men. The physical embodiment of that fact is NASA's space suits, which had been designed with a man's physique in mind, not a woman's. Koch's participation in the first all-woman spacewalk was a ground-breaking accomplishment for female astronauts and all non-male people around the world, alike.

"Men's physiology, perspectives, values, measurements, comfort and ambitions have mostly been the default template for designing major human endeavors. I believe that Koch and Meir, by their sheer skill and execution, shift us closer to a template based on intelligence, agility, capability, integrity, courage and excellence," Mae Jemison, a fellow female astronaut, wrote about the pair in Time magazine's "The 100 most Influential People of the Year" feature.

In December 2020, Koch was selected as one of the astronauts who will journey to the Moon on NASA's Artemis missions. That means she could be one of the first — if not the first — woman to step foot on the moon. 

"To me, what [Artemis] really represents is that NASA is committed to answering humanity's call to explore by all and for all. We're an example of how you're most successful when you take contributions from every single part of the world, and the planet and humanity," Koch told Raleigh, North Carolina's CBS17 about the selection.

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JoAnna Wendel contributor

JoAnna Wendel is a freelance science writer living in Portland, Oregon. She mainly covers Earth and planetary science but also loves the ocean, invertebrates, lichen and moss. JoAnna's work has appeared in Eos, Smithsonian Magazine, Knowable Magazine, Popular Science and more. JoAnna is also a science cartoonist and has published comics with Gizmodo, NASA, Science News for Students and more. She graduated from the University of Oregon with a degree in general sciences because she couldn't decide on her favorite area of science. In her spare time, JoAnna likes to hike, read, paint, do crossword puzzles and hang out with her cat, Pancake.