NASA astronaut Christina Koch, 41, is a real power. In February 2020 it set the record of permanence in space for a woman: 328 days on board the International Space Station – for 5,248 revolutions around the Earth. Not happy, Koch and her colleague Jessica Meir also took part in the first women’s space walk, in October 2019, entering history.
“I don’t remember a single moment in my life when I didn’t want to be an astronaut. And I have the privilege of being able to fulfill my lifelong dream. “
She said it to herself Vogue, a month after returning to Earth. To get here, his path was long. After graduating from North Carolina State University, she worked at NASA as an electrical engineer, before becoming a researcher in Antarctica and Greenland for a long period. “I wanted to pursue my passions and gain wide-ranging experience,” he explains. “I therefore decided that, when I acquired all the skills to say, ‘Now I can really give something to the program (of NASA astronauts, Editor’s note) here, only then would I have applied to become an astronaut ”.
Engineer Christina Koch, in Expedition 60, works in the sealed chamber of the Quest. He is cleaning or replacing the space suit cooling circuits, July 2018
Koch, who specialized in microgravity while in space, follows in the footsteps of a long line of space pioneering women, including Russian cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman to go to space in 1963, and Sally Ride, the American premiere in space, in 1983. Christina Koch spoke to Vogue the new frontiers of space for a woman, the difficulties she has encountered and why exploring space is a precious thing for all of us.
How does it feel to hold the record for the longest stay in space for a woman?
“First of all, it is an honor to have been able to follow in the footsteps of my heroes, the people who have led the way and who have allowed me to be where I am today. I feel a great responsibility to reciprocate and mentor future explorers. My biggest hope for my record is that it will be beaten as soon as possible, because it would mean that we continue to push ourselves beyond our limits. I can’t wait to get over, I hope soon, by someone to whom I have had the honor of mentoring, and to see that he realizes his dream. “
You also took part in the first all-female spacewalk with Jessica Meir. How did it go?
“Jessica and I tried to minimize the fact that it would be the first walk in the space of women only because we had huge technical responsibilities to support, we were very focused on the upcoming mission. But there was certainly a moment that I will never forget after leaving the sealed room, and we found ourselves outside, in space: we looked for each other, we smiled and we both understood the meaning of that moment.
Christina Koch (left) and Jessica Meir work on their spacesuits before the historic space walk of all women who led to install new lithium-ion batteries that store and distribute the energy collected from solar arrays on the Port lattice structure. 6 of the station, January 2020
“The real result was not that two people had left the sealed chamber but that, as part of a larger mission and as an agency, we had decided to do it ourselves. Our mission was for all humanity. “
You were supposed to take part in the first women’s space walk with Anne McClain in March 2019, but it was canceled due to problems related to the size of the spacesuits. Was it frustrating?
“Anne McClain communicated that she would have preferred not to take a walk in space without a suit of the size suitable for her in the very early stages of my mission. I was happy that she felt legitimized to make that decision, and that no one at NASA had questioned her decision or asked her to change her mind, because the event had already been announced. I think this speaks volumes about where we got there. “
What were the biggest difficulties you encountered as a female astronaut?
“The spacewalk is an example of an area where there are certain limitations that affect women, also simply because we have different sizes. The spacesuits produced 30 or 40 years ago by NASA’s Astronaut Corps were created for a medium-sized man astronaut. It’s just a tangible example of the fact that there are problems dating back to past habits that can still harm women.
Expedition 60: NASA’s Christina Koch looks through the station’s “window on the world”, the seven-windowed dome, August 2019
“At astronaut school mine was the first class where there was an equal number of men and women. When we finished school, women were expected to excel as much as men. And we have been given the resources and support to make this happen. “
What kind of impact does being in space have on a woman’s body, and how does it differ from that on the male body, if there is a difference?
“It is a topic that is still being studied. There have been more than 560 humans who have spent time in space, and about 65 of them are women, so it is still difficult to reach universal scientific conclusions. In general, one thing is certain, namely that up to now there is no evidence of the difference between men and women in terms of resilience or robustness both for the adaptation to life in space and for the recovery once they return to Earth.
“I consider myself lucky to have contributed to new studies on the adaptation of the human body to long stays in space, so that future missions can be better planned in deeper space.”
NASA math Katherine Johnson passed away in February 2020, at 101 years old. Many did not know his story before the film was released The right to count, in 2016. Do you think that the history of women, even of black women, who work in this area today is better known than in the past?
“Yes, and it must be said that I was among those who were not aware of their contribution. I read a couple of books on women who worked at JPL, (the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Editor’s note) and they were of great inspiration to me. And it’s wonderful that their contribution is highlighted. It is a privilege to be part of this program in a historical moment in which women are recognized their role, but the truth is that they have always had a role, with the difference that now they no longer remain in the background.
“And it is important to know the history, on that we must base ourselves to progress. The right to count, the film and the book highlighted how many difficulties people were able to overcome. One thing I learned is that in this age where prejudices are perhaps more implicit – but they are still there, as I would say – we still have to look for the evidence, and eradicate them. “
What surprised you most about your experience in space?
“The biggest surprise was seeing how the human body adapts to space travel. It is an alien environment to us: when you go there for the first time, it seems to you like being born a second time. Because you have to re-learn to perform the simplest tasks of everyday life, but in space and in a space station. Then, after a couple of weeks, you don’t even notice that you’re floating. The body adapts, the mind learns to represent things in 3D, you learn to move by attaching yourself to the handrails and anchoring your feet to the bars ”.
Christina Koch takes a space selfie with the Earth behind her, October 2019
How are you getting used to life on Earth after 11 months in space? What are you doing to get used to it?
First of all, there is a physical readjustment, you learn to walk again and stay balanced. Your brain stops listening to your “inner ear” and you orient yourself in space visually, and when you return to Earth you have a whole series of conflicting signals that can also lead to movement-related ailments. Now I focus on my cardiovascular system: even if we do a lot of exercise on board the space station, part of the aerobic capacity is lost simply because the heart doesn’t have to pump so hard in the absence of gravity.
“Then, of course, there is the question of reintegration into society: learning how to do normal things like shopping. We usually joke that when we return to Earth, the detergent department intimidates us because in space we have a single product to do everything. I didn’t even have to choose clothes for over a year, they provided me with everything. ”
People often wonder why we spend so much money exploring space when we have so many problems on Earth, including climate change. What is your answer?
“My answer is twofold: first, there are the technical benefits that we see. There are the related industries, the possibility of doing research on topics such as climate change, drugs. But even more important is that it gives new impulses in particular to scientific and technological disciplines (science, technology, engineering and mathematics, Editor’s note). Right now the innovative ideas and the people who are stimulated to explore the frontiers of knowledge, but also the boundaries of the universe, are the ones we are looking for. If we don’t progress, we risk going back. “
ISS Expedition 61, Christina Koch after landing the Soyuz MS-13 spacecraft, in a steppe, 147 km southwest of the city of Zhezqazghan, Kazakhstan
© Alexander Ryumin / Getty Images
Are you hoping to go to space again?
“Absolutely yes. Even if there are many things I can do from here and, indeed, I can’t wait to use many of the things I’ve learned in space even down here, I really hope to have the opportunity to return to space again “.