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Record-breaking astronaut Christina Koch on making space history and surviving lengthy isolation

‘Recommit to the things that you know keep you healthy and sane’

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Image: NASA

On February 6th, NASA astronaut Christina Koch returned back to Earth after making history during a nearly year-long stay on board the International Space Station. She had just broken the record for longest continuous spaceflight by a woman, and while she was up there, she performed the first all-female spacewalk in history with her friend and crewmate Jessica Meir. In fact, they did three total spacewalks together.

Now back on solid ground, Koch is experiencing another long-duration mission: social distancing during the coronavirus pandemic. But she says her turn aboard the ISS is helping her cope during this time, and she has some tips for others who may be struggling to stay positive throughout the crisis. Koch also says she has a better understanding of what it’s going to take to send people on years-long deep-space missions to Mars one day. The key? Combatting what she calls “sensory underload.”

Now back on solid ground, Koch is experiencing another long-duration mission: social distancing

In the meantime, she’s continuing to train — as much as she can from home — while awaiting her next assignment to space. And for her, the next call from NASA could be a big one. The space agency is aiming to send the first woman to the Moon as early as 2024 as part of its Artemis mission. It’s possible that woman could be Koch.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Your first flight to space was very eventful. What was it like when you first got your assignment?

It was a really exciting time, and I ended up being assigned at a time when there was a lot of flux in the flight schedule, so I had an accelerated training flow. Whereas the normal training flow is about two years, mine was about a year. I ended up studying to be in the copilot role in the Soyuz spacecraft. I spent almost all of 2018 living and training in Russia, which was an incredible experience.

Obviously, as a rookie, getting told that you’re finally going to achieve your dream of going to the space station is just an incredible moment, similar to the moment you find out you’re selected to be in the astronaut corps. It’s hard to really believe it’s happening, but, like anything, NASA gives you plenty to keep you busy.

Your time on the space station was definitely longer than you anticipated. What was it like learning that you’d be staying for nearly a year?

I did know in advance that it was a possibility. So for me, the real challenge and what I focused on was not getting too caught up in the sense of needing to know when I would go home. I became comfortable with the concept of launching and not necessarily knowing for sure when I would come back. So I developed a strategy for the longest-possible duration so that I could kind of sustain that tempo no matter what, if it was required.

“I just told myself it was an ultra-marathon, not a marathon.”

We say in the industry that for a long-duration spaceflight, it’s a marathon, not a sprint. So I just told myself it was an ultra-marathon, not a marathon.

Let’s talk about your spacewalks, which were such a big deal to everyone on the ground. First, you were assigned to go with Anne McClain, and that was going to be the first all-female spacewalk. Then it was postponed. What was that event like for you, hearing about the backlash that was associated with it?

Being in the moment was a different experience than maybe it was perceived to be from the outside. The spacewalk actually wasn’t canceled; it happened. It was conducted by Nick Hague and myself. The decision to change the crew was actually recommended by Anne, based on her own preferences and the additional information she gained from her first spacewalk. And the fact that NASA 100 percent stood behind her decision and did not question it, I thought it was just an incredible example of trusting the crew, trusting the experts that are going to conduct the spacewalk, and trusting Anne to know what the best way to get the job done and to mitigate the risk would be. So I really commend both her and our leadership for going with that decision.

Jessica Meir (L) and Christina Koch (R) preparing for their spacewalk.
Jessica Meir (L) and Christina Koch (R) preparing for their spacewalk.
Image: NASA

But then you also did get to make that history with your crewmate Jessica Meir just a few months later. What was that like, learning that you would actually get to do this all-female spacewalk that was so important to people.

It was just an awesome honor, as they all are. We were focused on the mission; we were excited to conduct the maintenance and upgrade to the space station. And I was just as happy to go out the door with Jessica as I had been with Nick and [NASA astronaut] Andrew [Morgan] on previous spacewalks.

Of course, there is something special that is being part of the first all-female spacewalk, and that was something that we kind of allowed ourselves to really take in and consider — more afterward. Because the preparation leading up to that spacewalk, we were all business: focused on the technical aspects, on making sure that we could get the job done. Interestingly, that spacewalk was actually a contingency spacewalk, so it had never been planned to happen. It was because of some unexpected hardware signatures that they saw after the battery replacement. So it was an incredible thing to be a part of, from our perspective, really more because of the teamwork involved in coming up with this incredible spacewalk within the span of a week and executing it successfully. So after the fact, I think we had a little more time to reflect on the historical significance of what we were doing.

Koch taking a space selfie during her spacewalk with Meir.
Koch taking a space selfie during her spacewalk with Meir.
Image: NASA

Obviously, we’re incredibly grateful to those that paved the way for us to be there. It was a privilege to be there at the right place at the right time.

People are experiencing their own form of spaceflight right now: they’re being socially isolated at home. What kind of advice would you have for them, given your experience?

As we come into the second month of social distancing and staying at home, it reminds me a lot of the latter part of my mission where the biggest challenge was remaining vigilant. We know what we should be doing — make a schedule, have a routine, take time for yourself, carve out space, set realistic goals — but I think, as it wears on, we kind of lose the vigilance and the commitment to those things. If every day feels like Tuesday, you don’t have the grit to make yourself do all of those things we know we should be doing.

“It reminds me a lot of the latter part of my mission where the biggest challenge was remaining vigilant.”

So I would say recommit to the things that you know keep you healthy and sane during this time — reaching out, supporting each other. You’re probably finding yourself thinking, “When is this going to be over?” more and more. And for me, the way that I got through times like that was to focus not on the things I was missing out on, but on the unique parts of the situation that I would never have again. So find something that you love about this current situation, and that may be difficult. Some of us are going through really tough times. But find something that makes it special and unique that you know you’ll miss one day. And if you focus on that, you may find that you aren’t constantly waiting for it to be over.

What about using your experience to go to the Moon or Mars? Do you feel like you have a better understanding of what it’s going to take to do these years-long missions into deep space?

Definitely. We talked a lot on board about just that. Something we’re all probably experiencing right now is what I call “sensory underload.” You’ve seen the same thing for so long. You haven’t seen new people. You haven’t smelled new smells. You haven’t tasted new tastes. And there is a change, I think, in the brain that happens when we don’t have new sensory inputs to process every day.

“There is a change, I think, in the brain that happens when we don’t have new sensory inputs.”

A lot of the things that I think would enhance our long-duration missions are in kind of that realm — things like packing care packages for yourself to open throughout the mission, having virtual reality options for interacting in different environments and maybe even interacting with your family, coming up with unique ways to stay connected, using some of the same communication tools that we use on Earth, like, for example, texting.

So some of the answers are actually pretty simple. But I would say, right now, probably everyone in America has some pretty good advice as well on surviving long-duration space missions. We’ve all had a little taste of it ourselves.

I feel like I’m kind of trying to combat this “sensory underload” right now by trying to do new things, new activities, that make it seem like I’m in a different place than where I am.

One of the things that I did on board is use things like music or even decorating for that. You know, painting a room in your apartment, rearranging the furniture, or listening to a playlist that’s of a completely different genre in your house. Things that truly can provide a little bit of relief from sensory underload.

Now that you’re back on solid ground, what have you been doing during this period of downtime? Are you still training? Does it weirdly mirror your time on the station?

On the station, our days are 12-hour workdays during the week, filled with maintenance, science, and exercise down to the five-minute increments. So even without social isolation and staying at home, it would have been a big decrease in the amount of regimentation to my schedule coming home.

Image: NASA

You know a lot of people joke: “How can an astronaut work from home?” And yes, you know, there are a lot of training aspects that we can do and currency aspects that we can do from home. Russian language is a great example of that. And then anyone who’s mission essential is still doing their aspects of their job. So a lot of us support real-time space station work by being the CAPCOM in Mission Control. (That’s the person talking to the astronauts throughout the day.) So it’s a mix of essential work that we do go in for and then staying relevant on our training from home when we can’t.

Meanwhile, we’ve got a lot of big things from NASA coming up at the end of the month. Two of your fellow astronauts will be launching from Florida on a SpaceX rocket. What’s that going to be like for you?

I’m over the Moon for that mission. I am so excited to see [NASA astronauts] Doug [Hurley] and Bob [Behnken] launch from Cape Canaveral on an American rocket. I think it was an incredible decision to do business in the way that NASA has been, fostering this space economy by opening up the transportation of astronauts to and from the space station to private industry. To see it culminate and launch on May 27th is going to be incredible. Though we will all be separated, I think we’ll all be experiencing it together as a country and as a world.

There are also a lot of big opportunities coming up with NASA and its Artemis program to send the first woman to the Moon, and the NASA administrator has said that astronaut is probably already in the astronaut corps. Would you want to be that person?

I am so excited about the Artemis mission. It is going to be an incredible opportunity to lead on a global scale, to apply technologies to go on even deeper space missions like going to Mars and answering some of the biggest philosophical questions I think of our time — about are we alone? We are really on an awesome path of exploration and discovery right now, and it’s a really amazing time to be in the astronaut corps.

No one knows who those first couple of astronauts will be. My hope is that it’s the right person for the job. We have an incredible astronaut corps. Any single person would excel in that role, and I just can’t wait to see who that person is. I know that they will carry the hopes and dreams of all humanity with them when they go, and truly, I’m just excited to know that person. Whether or not it’s me, of course, any astronaut would accept with honor.