Making Space for Women
On 6th February 2020, as the Soyuz capsule from the International Space Station (ISS) made safe landing in Kazakhstan at around 3 PM, history was in the making. Christina Hammock Koch, who conducted the longest space excursion for 328 consecutive days, returned to Earth, made her return on that misty evening, breaking the record for the longest single spaceflight by a woman. During her stay in ISS, Christina orbited planet earth 5,248 times, traversing a distance of about 223 million kilometres, almost equivalent to a trip to the Sun. Christina made further history as she made the first ever all-female spacewalk with the fellow NASA astronaut Jessica Meir on 18th October, 2019.
"We caught each other's eye and we knew that we were really honored with this opportunity to inspire so many, and just hearing our voices talk to Mission Control, knowing two female voices had never been on the loops, solving those problems together outside -- it was a really special feeling," Koch recollected of that first spacewalk. Christina Koch truly inspires the next generation of explorers and, in adherence to the famous ad campaign, made-space-for-women!
Christina was born in 1979 in Michigan, United States of America and acquired a graduate degree in Electrical Engineering from the North Carolina State University. In her younger days, Christina was fond of backpacking, rock climbing, paddling, sailing, running, Yoga, community service, photography and travel. She fell in love with adventures and risks, which equipped her with the skill of developing suitable strategies to thrive within extreme life situations. From 2004 to 2007, Christina travelled the Arctic and Antarctic regions and stayed at the Amundsen–Scott South Pole Station during winter-over seasons. It was a tryst with an extreme minus-111-degree temperature and a training to go months without seeing the Sun, with the same crew, and without shipments of mail or fresh food. She adapted herself with a life of extreme isolation, in the absence of family and friends, and with no new sensory inputs. A remote preparation for longer life in the space!
In June 2013, Koch was selected by NASA as part of Astronaut Group 21, which she completed in July 2015.The NASA training included scientific and technical briefings, intensive instruction in International Space Station systems, spacewalks, robotics, physiological training, flight training, water and wilderness survival training. After such an extensive preparation, she was taken to the ISS on board Soyuz MS-12 on March 14, 2019.
As a trained electrical engineer, Christina had made significant contributions to scientific instruments used in several NASA missions. In the space, however, astronaut herself is the guinea pig. Christina offered herself as a test object to study human health in space. A special question of importance in her case was how a female body will respond to the elongated space stay. The test results should derive insights needed for further and farther trips to the destinations like Moon and Mars.
Long stay in the space could cause loss of bone and muscle in astronauts due to lack of gravity there. It is important take preventive medicine and exercise to counter these developments. Further, the kidneys of astronauts may be affected by the effects of unique diet, water conservation, extensive travel and microgravity. Christina’s experiments done on her body is expected to develop new insights into these questions.
Astronauts are also supposed to conduct a variety of experiments and investigations on behalf of scientists on earth in diverse areas including Physics, Chemistry, Biology and Medicine. Christina and her team have made a significant breakthrough in cancer research. They could grow the crystal of a special protein that is critical to the growth of tumors and cancer. It was not possible to grow these crystals under gravity conditions on Earth, whereas the microgravity of the space promoted the growth of larger and more organized crystals.
Christina and team conducted extensive investigations on fabrication of organ-like tissues in space conditions. It is difficult to print structures like capillaries on Earth, which could be made with relative ease in the absence of gravity in the space. They also investigated the plant biology in the space lab to understand how plants grow in space. In fact, the crew did taste fresh Mizuna mustard greens grown on board. They also brought back part of the greens they have grown in space in frozen conditions to earth for further investigations. Growing food in the space would be an interesting next step towards developing settlements in the outer space.
Further, they made investigations to understand the behavior of fire in space conditions. The results were to provide insights to the mode of fire-fighting in a spacecraft. It also exposed efficient ways of fuel use on earth to reduce pollution and global warming. The team also investigated into alternate ways of chilling atoms near to the absolute zero of temperature. The low-energy atoms thus created could be deftly arrested allowing scientists to study their extensive properties.
It was highly exciting moment as Christina joined the space family at ISS. Astronauts used to take photographs of Earth which rendered them with totally new perspectives of the mundane realities. In the words of Christina: "Earth is alive, and I have witnessed its power and beauty from a special vantage point 250 miles above the surface. From the space station we see no borders, no boundaries -- we are all part of one giant organism that breathes and adapts.”A great worldview!
Christina was especially happy as the space station passed over coastal North Carolina, where she grew up. The nostalgia about the earthly home abided with her all through, though she could valiantly manage the homesickness and adapt herself with the solitude of the space station. She knew what she missed in the upper space. “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 lamented.
Courage to Push Horizons
What a creative mind mostly requires is the courage to move out of personal comfort zones and to break out of the boundaries set by own stipulations. If anybody is prepared to push horizons, the entire cosmos will come to their support to bring it to realization, it is said. However, it requires an attitude to think out of the box and to cross the limits, as it often involves radical sacrifices. Success of creative minds lies in their ability to suffer the pangs of creation. They are supposed to adapt to strange and extreme life situations. Christina Koch serves an excellent example for a new generation creative mind, who dared to make sacrifices and thus to set a new world record for space stay. "My biggest hope for [this] record is that it is exceeded as soon as possible again, because that means we are continuing to push those boundaries," says Christina.
- The first woman in space was Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova whose spaceflight in 1963 is till the date the only solo mission carried out by a woman.
- The previous record for a single spaceflight by a woman of 289 days set by NASA veteran Peggy Whitson in 2016-17.
- The longest single human space stay ever was due to the Russian astronaut Valery Polyakov at 437 days on board Russia's former space station Mir from January 1994 to March 1995.
- Scott Kelly holds the record for longest stay in the space by a NASA astronaut, posting 340 days at the ISS in 2016.
- The Russian Cosmonaut Gennady Padalka holds the world record for the most cumulative time in space at 878 days over the course of five missions.