Michigan native astronaut Christina Koch hopes to inspire others to reach for stars

Sarah Rahal
The Detroit News
  • Listen to our interview with the spaceflight legend

Detroit — Astronaut Christina Koch spent almost 11 months aboard the International Space Station, and seeing the distant beauty of the Great Lakes from her outer perch changed her view of humanity.

"... I'll never forget the first time it kind of came into focus over the horizon and realizing you see the Great Lakes all together and then suddenly realizing ... there's like Lake Michigan, there's the mitten ... .  It's a really incredible feeling." 

The Michigan native has been back on Earth for almost six weeks after 328 days in space, the longest single spaceflight by a woman.

Her status as one of few women to conduct a spacewalk and her record-breaking stay in space has her on a new mission to inspire others.

"There are a lot of people that drive motivation from inspiring stories from other people who look like them, and I think it's an important aspect of the story to tell," said Koch, who hopes others break her record. 

NASA astronaut Christina Koch is pictured during a spacewalk on January 15, 2020.

Koch, a 41-year-old electrical engineer from Livingston, Montana, said she was born to soar beyond Earth, even as she remains firmly tied to her West Michigan roots.

Her mother, Barbara Johnsen, grew up near Grand Rapids and her father moved to Metro Detroit when he was a student.

"They met in Kalamazoo at a hospital where my mom was a med tech and my dad was a resident to become a physician," Koch said in an interview with The Detroit News.

Koch, who spoke before the coronavirus outbreak redefined life on Earth, was born in Grand Rapids before moving to Jacksonville, North Carolina, when she was a toddler. She returns to Michigan often to visit family.

"I moved away when I was 3 years old, but the nice thing is I was able to return every single summer with my family. All of my extended family still live in Michigan, most in Grand Rapids, farm areas north of Grand Rapids, also some in the Detroit and Dearborn area."

Peggy Whitson, right, attends Koch's first spacewalk training. "It is beyond an honor to follow in her footsteps today. I can’t wait to pay it forward to the next explorers and watch them fly even higher," Koch said.

Koch broke the record set by former space station Cmdr. Peggy Whitson in 2016-17, whom she looked at as a mentor for her trip.

Whitson, who attended Koch's first spacewalk training more than five years ago, noted her achievement, saying: "Records are made to be broken ... it's a sign of progress!"

Koch was just 12 days shy of breaking her colleague Scott Kelly's record of 340 days on the International Space Station on a single mission, set in 2016. The world record for the longest spaceflight is held by Valery Polyakov, a Russian astronaut who spent 438 days on a mission in 1994-95.

Her work on the space station included a microgravity crystals investigation, which crystallizes a membrane protein that is integral to tumor growth and cancer survival.

During Koch's trip, she teamed up with astronaut Jessica Meir to venture out on Oct. 21 to plug in upgraded batteries for the solar power system. It was the first all-female spacewalk.

Since the world’s first spacewalk in 1965, only 14 women have participated in them, versus 213 walks by men, according to NASA.

Koch graduated from the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics in Durham, North Carolina, where she received her masters in physics and electrical engineering.

She went on to graduate from NASA's Academy program at Goddard Space Flight Center in 2001. After more than a decade of working as an engineer at NASA and leaving NASA to work in the South Pole, she was selected in 2013 as one of eight members of the 21st NASA astronaut class. She was assigned to her mission in late 2017 and trained for two years.

Koch knew early that she wanted to be an astronaut.

"I don't really remember a time when I didn't want to be an astronaut, or when I wanted to be anything else," she said. "I was just a kid that never actually grew out of it from the time I was young."

Christina Koch is helped out of the Soyuz MS-13 spacecraft just minutes after she landed in a remote area near the town of Zhezkazgan, Kazakhstan on Feb. 6, 2020.

Living out her dream job this past year had some setbacks. She craved salsa and chips, missed her family, her dog, Sadie Lou, and couldn't wait to swim and surf in the Gulf of Mexico.

She said NASA recognizes how important mental stability is, and astronauts are trained in expeditionary behavior skills to work together as a team onboard. While in space, a morale team in Houston helped keep them connected to current events, pop culture, family and life on Earth.

Since Koch returned on Feb. 6, she's been learning to walk again in one G, or the force of Earth's gravity, regaining her balance and getting her motion sickness under control. And she's showering with water again instead of a re-hydrated towel that contains soap.

She said reintegration to "the normal flow of life on Earth after being in a place where you don't interact with many humans on a regular basis" has been a difficult challenge.

John Blondin, a research physics professor at North Carolina State University, taught Koch as a sophomore in college. She was one of the brightest, he said.

"We try to encourage our students to get into research projects, and she spent the following summer with me working on developing a computer model of a supernova explosion," Blondin said. "She was just fearless, and that's what set her apart. She wasn't afraid to do anything and she'd actually seek out the most difficult challenges."

9 questions for Koch

Expedition 60 Flight Engineer Christina Koch of NASA works inside the Quest joint airlock cleaning U.S. spacesuit cooling loops and replacing spacesuit components.

1. What are the long-term effects of being in space so long?

"You hear about people being aware of long duration, even international flights on Earth having radiation exposure. Well, there's also a level of radiation that you receive is higher when you're on the space station because you have less of the Earth's magnetic field protecting you from the radiation coming from the sun and other parts of the universe. 

And interestingly, that's one of the technological challenges that we will have to overcome if we do a Mars mission. So our missions actually help inform and help technology development to overcome that so that we can explore deeper and go to Mars."

2. How are you readjusting?

“Oh, how I miss the wind on my face, the feeling of raindrops, sand on my feet and the sound of the surf crashing on the Galveston beach," she said, adding she missed fragrances. 

"The ISS smells like a lab, a gym, a house that six people live in together for months at a time. ... There is the unique smell of space. After re-pressurization, anytime we open a hatch that has been exposed to the outside, there is a distinctive smell. To me, it smells like rusted metal, a scent that will evoke vivid memories for years to come."

It's been a long time since she used a knife and fork regularly.

"In orbit, we eat with a spoon, one spoon. Three hundred and twenty-eight days with the same spoon. It might just be my most valuable possession in orbit. Everything is in a packet — steak, pasta, coffee. We either drink it through a straw or cut it open and eat it with a spoon. We re-hydrate most of the 200 different items on the menu, and while that seems like a lot of options, those exact same options are presented every week. I’ve been in orbit for 47 weeks.

"Shopping in a grocery or department store seems like a daunting task. Choice can be paralyzing.”

3. How do you not just physically, but mentally stay grounded and stable?

Koch was able to video chat with her family once a week and said looking at Earth and seeing places she's from and sharing pictures she'd taken with family helped her stay connected.

"Sometimes, we would even exchange emails where someone would say, 'Hey, I waved at you. I saw the International Space Station go over tonight.' And I would say I remember passing over you guys. So knowing that we were kind of both looking at each other was really special. And that happens a lot with my family in Michigan because they live in kind of a rural area and farm area. And so they had great views of the International Space Station when we would fly over."

4. What's the view like from 250 miles above?

"It's an amazing feeling. I'd say it changes your view of humanity and how closely knit we are all. One thing that surprised me the most was how profound it was to look down on places where you lived in places you're from.

"...So it's a really incredible feeling. West Michigan is so easy to pick out where I'm from. Because it's right along Lake Michigan, and just being able to look directly at the place where I knew so many people I loved were living and working was really special.

"The Moon looks the same from orbit as it does from Earth. It is a common point of reference for us all and offers a common interest as we strive to return to its surface."

5. Does it bother you at all that you were 12 days short of Scott Kelly's record?

"No, not at all," she said, laughing. "I'm so happy to contribute in any way. I'm definitely not someone who counts records for myself. I look at the mission overall, and not necessarily how many days I was up there, but what I was able to do with those days. It's ... the awesome science that we do on the space station, and those are the real achievements that I look at and that I feel proud of. It's definitely not about a number.

"I would say ... my biggest hope is that even my record is exceeded as soon as possible because that means we're continuing to push the boundaries and the frontiers."

6. What part of your research do you think was most vital?

"I think one of the most tangible things would be our pharmaceuticals research in human medicine. Because the neat thing about microgravity is that we're able to do medical research and pharmaceutical research in ways that are physically not possible on Earth.

"That means it's in protein crystal growth, which is a fundamental way that companies can study making pharmaceuticals to fight things like cancer, Parkinson's, and things like that. We have grown crystals and learn more about some of the proteins that are critical in fighting those diseases in ways onboard that were done for the first time ever, so we would see crystals and certain proteins that had never been grown before. And to know that was something we were able to contribute to real-time was just awesome."

7. Was anything surprising or unexpected in your research?

"I can't think it's something that wasn't surprising. Every time we try something new in microgravity, we learned something. One of the things that I did was growing fiber optics using a type of material that allows for orders of magnitude better fiber-optic cables, which would of course, completely change and revolutionize our communications and internet systems on Earth."

8. When do you think the average American will be able to travel to space?

"There was just recently an announcement where SpaceX is partnering with a company that's going to fly an entire spacecraft of visitors that's commercial visitors to space, and so I think it's a really exciting time where anyone who is curious can participate in spaceflight. And we can really see the economy of low Earth orbit spaceflight blossom and watch the innovations unfold in terms of how long till an ordinary person can fly, I just hope it's as soon as possible, because I would love for everyone to be able to see what we have been privileged to see. And to pick the takeaways from that. And you know, how it can be applied to how you view humanity is just really measurable."

9. What would you say to your younger self and young girls?

"Well, I would think that I would say, just continue to follow your dreams and to trust yourself and your passion, support the people around you. I think that when we do what we love, and we support others and doing what they love, we kind of amplify the effect of what we're able to give back to the world and what we're able to achieve and how much personal fulfillment we are to get out of it. And also strive not only to participate but to thrive and to be your best and to lead and never discount the contributions you'll be able to make."

Blondin, who has been teaching for 26 years, said Koch returns to the university frequently and is inspiring to students.

"It wasn't just her aspirations that got her there, it was her fearlessness. She took on this project, which really is on the par with a Ph.D. thesis and she just dove into it as a sophomore in college," said her former physics professor.

"I remember one summer day sitting outside with all the students and people asked what she would do with her physics degree. She said she was going to become an astronaut so definitively and all the students said 'wow.'

"Now, they're saying 'wow' even more."


Twitter: @SarahRahal_