NASA astronaut Christina Koch’s historic tour aboard the International Space Station came to a triumphant end Thursday when the spacecraft carrying her and two colleagues touched down on a snowy patch of earth at 4:12 a.m. Eastern time.
“She definitely looks glad to be home,” NASA’s Brandi Dean said on a live broadcast of the return.
But she wasn’t home, at least not all the way. Koch, along with Luca Parmitano of the European Space Agency and Alexander Skvortsov of Russia, had landed in remote and frozen desert in the middle of Kazakhstan, some 7,000 miles from Houston, the headquarters of America’s human space program and the place where most of the U.S. astronaut corps live.
For years, America’s astronauts have been taking off and landing from that barren landscape in Kazakhstan, not far from the site of an infamous Soviet-era Gulag labor camp and remote enough that locals show up, as they did Thursday, on horseback to see a charred thimble-shaped Soyuz spacecraft implanted in the ground, like a surreal relic of some science fiction flick.
Since the Space Shuttle fleet was retired in 2011, NASA has paid Russia for rides to the International Space Station, at more than $80 million a seat. The astronauts launch on Russian rockets from the Baikonur Cosmodrome, and return in a Soyuz spacecraft, the landing of which can feel like “a car accident that ended in multiple rollovers,” as former astronaut Scott Kelly wrote in his memoir “Endurance.”
But NASA hopes soon to return human spaceflight to American soil, and celebrate the next chapter of exploration from Florida’s Cape Canaveral, the birthplace of the American Space Age. Both Boeing and SpaceX are under contract from NASA to develop spacecraft to fly the space agency’s astronauts, and NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said in a phone interview Thursday that the first flight with astronauts on board is only “months away.”
“It is true that landing in Kazakhstan is not the most convenient for American astronauts,” he said. “But it is also true that we will continue to keep the partnership even after we’re launching from American soil.”
Koch’s long stay in space broke a record set in 2017 by Peggy Whitson, who spent 288 days in space on a single mission, and came within two weeks of the record for a single spaceflight by an American, 340 days, set by Kelly in 2016. Whitson still holds the record for the total days in space by any NASA astronaut, at 665.
Bridenstine said there had been some consideration of extending Koch’s mission so that it would break Kelly’s record. But Bridenstine said he deferred to the operators of the space station, who decided “it was in the best interest of the program to follow this schedule and optimize use of the space station. ... We love breaking records, but we don’t have to break records for the sake of breaking records.”
Koch, a scientist from North Carolina, joined the astronaut corps in 2013, the first class in NASA’s history that had as many women as men. Her time in space came at an important moment for NASA, which is going to great lengths to highlight women’s contributions to exploration.
Under a program dubbed Artemis for the twin sister of Apollo, the space agency is preparing to send “the next man and the first woman” to the moon by as early as 2024, as Bridenstine frequently says.
In October, Koch and Jessica Meir performed the first all-female spacewalk when they stepped outside the space station to repair a faulty battery charger. In all, Koch performed six spacewalks, including three with Meir, spending a total of 42 hours and 15 minutes outside the station.
Whitson, who retired from the agency in 2018, said she was pleased to see her single-spaceflight record fall.
“I am always happy that we at NASA are breaking records,” she said in an interview with The Washington Post. “That means we’re moving forward. I think it’s good. It’s a sign of progress. I love it.”
But for all the high-profile milestones and record-breaking achievements, women remain an overwhelming minority at NASA and in the aerospace industry as a whole. They make up only about a third of NASA’s workforce. They constitute just 28 percent of senior executive leadership positions and 16 percent of senior scientific employees, according to a survey compiled by the agency.
“It’s great to see how quickly Peggy’s record got broken,” said Ellen Stofan, a former chief scientist at NASA who now runs the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. “That means women are really contributing.”
She added that women still “have a long way to go. And the fact that’s taken so long to get to this point, and that we have not had an African American woman walk in space, shows the underrepresenting of groups is still there.”
Koch has said she is aware of the significance of her feats, particularly the all-female spacewalk with Meir and how the pair served as a motivation to others looking to follow in their footsteps.
“We caught each other’s eye and we knew that we were really honored with this opportunity to inspire so many,” she said in an interview published on NASA’s website. “Just hearing our voices talk to Mission Control, knowing two female voices had never been on the [communication] loops, solving those problems outside — it was really a special feeling.”
She also weighed in on a debate about the use of the word “manned” in the aerospace community.
NASA no longer officially uses the term and updated its style guide to say that “all references to the space program should be non-gender specific (e.g. human, piloted, unpiloted, robotic as opposed to manned or unmanned).” But it is still used in common parlance and in news articles.
“It’s been really nice to see that in the last several years, a lot of that language has been replaced,” she said in a NASA interview from the space station. “Even though that language is meant to represent all of humanity, it does conjure up images of men being the main participants.”
In an email to The Post, Kelly said he thought Koch’s record was “great,” adding that “328 days is a long time. Anything over about a month is long. Congratulations Christina and welcome home. Great job! Enjoy planet Earth!”
The achievement comes as NASA this year is celebrating 20 years of continuous human presence on the space station, some 240 miles above Earth. During her stay, Koch participated in a number of scientific experiments, including on mustard greens, combustion, bio-printing and kidney diseases.
Stofan said it is important to have women participate in long-duration flights in Earth orbit, in preparation for long human journeys into deep space.
“When we send humans to Mars, we need data on the long-term effects of space on the human body,” she said. “And we know there are differences between how men and women react to space.”
Before her return, Koch said she was looking forward to being back in nature.
“Oh, how I miss the wind on my face, the feeling of raindrops, sand on my feet and the sound of surf crashing on Galveston Beach,” she said.
She is also looking forward to eating with forks and knives again.
“On orbit, we eat with a spoon,” she said. “One spoon — 328 days with the same spoon.”