Christina Koch’s Record-Setting Space Flight Coming to a Close

Christina Koch’s Record-Setting Space Flight Coming to a Close

NASA astronaut Christina Koch and two International Space Station (ISS) colleagues will return to Earth early tomorrow morning bringing her record-setting mission to a close.  Not only did she participate in the first all-female spacewalks, but she will set a new record of 328 days for a continuous spaceflight by any woman, just 12 days short of the all-time American record held by Scott Kelly. 

Koch, Russia’s Alexander Skvortsov and ESA’s Luca Parmitano will undock their Soyuz MS-13 spacecraft from the ISS at 12:50 am Eastern Standard Time (EST) Thursday and land in the steppes of Kazakhstan at 4:12 am EST, which will be 3:12 pm local time at the landing site.  The weather is forecast to be in the high 20’s Fahrenheit with an 11 mile per hour wind according to AccuWeather.

Current ISS crew L-R: Drew Morgan (NASA), Alexander Skvortsov (Roscosmos), Luca Parmitano (ESA/Italy), Oleg Skripochka (Roscosmos), Jessica Meir (NASA), and Christina Koch (NASA). Photo credit: NASA

That will be quite a change from the controlled climate of the ISS where Koch has resided since March 14, 2019.   Her mission was extended after she was in orbit, so she did not return with the two crewmates who accompanied her during launch on Soyuz MS-12: Russia’s Aleksey Ovchinin and NASA’s Nick Hague.  They have been back on Earth since October.

Instead, she is returning with Skvortsov and Parmitano who arrived on Soyuz MS-13 on July 20, 2019 with NASA’s Drew Morgan. Like Koch, Morgan’s mission also has been extended.  He will return to Earth on April 19 along with NASA’s Jessica Meir and Russia’s Oleg Skripochka.

Koch tweeted today that she will miss those she is leaving behind.

The ISS is a partnership among the United States, Russia, Japan, Canada, and 11 European countries. The multi-modular facility has been permanently occupied since November 2000 by international crews rotating on roughly 4-6 month schedules.  Comings and goings are routine, but Koch’s return is getting special attention because of her record-setting achievements as a female astronaut.

She is the first American woman to spend 328 continuous days in space, breaking Peggy Whitson’s record of 288 days.  Whitson still holds the record for cumulative time in space for a woman — 665 days over three spaceflights.

The only American who has remained in space for a longer continuous flight is Scott Kelly, whose 340 days on ISS is often referred to as a “Year in Space” even if it was not quite 365 days.  His partner for that mission was Russia’s Mikhail Kornienko.  They remained aboard the ISS as other crews came and went. Three other Russians have spent longer continuous times in space on Russian space stations.  The longest was Valeriy Polyakhov’s 438 days on Mir in 1994-1995.

Kelly wrote a book about his life including what it was like adapting to Earth’s gravity after his return.  It will be Koch’s turn tomorrow morning.  This is her first spaceflight so reentry through the Earth’s atmosphere, landing, and all that comes after will be a new experience.  CBS News space correspondent Bill Harwood reports that in an interview yesterday, Koch said she is looking forward to reentry and seeing the “plasma go by on the window … and the G’s are starting to hit” because it will “make it feel real, that I’m actually coming back from space.”  Gravity “will be definitely something to get used to” since “I haven’t had to hold up even my own body weight in a long time, so we’ll see how it goes.”

For their part, Skvortsov and Parmitano are adding 201 days to their résumés, bringing them to a cumulative total of 546 days and 367 days respectively.

How long astronauts spend in space is important for understanding how humans react physiologically and psychologically to long duration space travel since trips to Mars will be much longer.  It takes about six months to get there and six months to return to Earth. How long crews will have to remain on Mars depends on the orbital alignment between the two planets, but will be many months. All together, a typical mission will take on the order of 2 years.

That is not the whole point of the ISS, however.  It is a laboratory in space where the astronauts conduct a wide range of science experiments and technology demonstrations.  Koch was involved in more than 210 investigations.

Spacewalks are an important and routine part of living aboard the ISS since some of those experiments and a lot of equipment are attached to the exterior and need to be repaired or replaced.  A total of 227 spacewalks have been conducted since 1998 during construction and operation of the facility.

Koch performed six of them, three of which were historic because for the first time the spacewalkers were both women.  Usually it is two men or occasionally a man and a woman depending on who is aboard. Although women have been NASA astronauts since 1978, they are still in the minority and until now there has been little opportunity for an all-female spacewalk.

Of the 48 active NASA astronauts today, 17 are women, five having just graduated into the corps from training last month along with six male colleagues.

Koch did three EVAs early in her mission with Nick Hague or Drew Morgan, but the final three were with Jessica Meir, who arrived on ISS in September 2019.  All three were to replace batteries.  The spacewalks lasted 7 hours 17 minutes, 7 hours 29 minutes, and 6 hours 58 minutes.  The first, on October 18, 2019, made headlines.

NASA astronauts Jessica Meir (L) and Christina Koch (R) prior to their history-making first all-female spacewalk, October 18, 2019. Credit: NASA

NASA TV coverage of the Soyuz MS-13 undocking begins at 12:15 am EST.  Landing coverage begins at 3:00 am EST.

With their departure, the ISS is entering a period of reduced staffing.  Usually there are six crewmembers aboard, but for the indefinite future there will be only three except for a brief crew-exchange period in April.  After Soyuz MS-13 departs, two Americans (Meir and Morgan) and one Russian (Skripochka) will remain.  They will be replaced in April by two Russians (Tikhonov and Babkin) and one American (Chris Cassidy).

Since 2011 when the United States terminated the space shuttle program, Russia is the only ISS partner that can ferry crews back and forth in Soyuz spacecraft.  Under the Intergovernmental Agreement that governs the partnership, the United States is responsible for transporting not only American, but Japanese, Canadian and European crew.  It has been been paying Russia for those transportation services while two new U.S. systems are developed through NASA’s commercial crew public-private partnerships with Boeing and SpaceX.

NASA anticipated that at least one of the two would be ready by now.  Cassidy’s seat on the April mission is the last one it has purchased.  NASA hopes the commercial crew systems will be ready soon, but no one wants schedule pressure to negatively impact safety so NASA is negotiating for a seat on a Soyuz flight in the fall and perhaps another in the spring, but nothing has been finalized.  NASA and its Russia counterpart, Roscosmos, agree that at least one American and one Russian must be aboard ISS to operate their respective segments.

The reduced crew size means less science research since ISS maintenance consumes a lot of time.  It also means spacewalks will be conducted only if absolutely necessary.

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