NASA astronaut Christina Koch made the most of her first trip to the International Space Station by breaking the record for the longest single spaceflight by a woman and conducting the first all-female spacewalk with fellow NASA astronaut Jessica Meir.
“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 said of that first spacewalk, on October 18.
According to CNN, Koch returned to Earth early Thursday along with European Space Agency astronaut Luca Parmitano and Russian cosmonaut Alexander Skvortsov. The Soyuz spacecraft carrying the astronauts landed near Zhezkazgan, Kazakhstan at 4:12 a.m. ET.
Koch also devoted much of her time to a variety of experiments and investigations. The space station acts as an orbiting laboratory that can be used to test how different aspects of everyday human life on Earth react to the lack of gravity.
During her mission, Koch completed six spacewalks — including another two with Meir — and spent 42 hours and 15 minutes outside of the station.
On the station, astronauts experience a plethora of science activities. Sometimes, they’re the test subject, contributing to studies about human health in space. Other times, they’re working with scientists on Earth to test their experiments.
In addition to her firsts and records, here’s what Koch accomplished over 328 days in space along with some of her favorite moments.
Just by extending her original six-month mission and reaching this record of 328 days, Koch has contributed to a better understanding of what long-term spaceflight can do to the human body. It surpassed astronaut Peggy Whitson’s previous record of 288 days. NASA astronaut Scott Kelly still holds the all-time record with 340 days in space.
The lack of gravity in space causes bone and muscle loss in astronauts, so a multitude of studies past and present have focused on how to mitigate and even prevent this from happening. Koch was part of the Vertebral Strength investigation, which focused on helping develop countermeasures to the impact of spaceflight, like preventative medicine and exercise. What they learn from the investigation could also help NASA place a limit on the forces astronauts face during launch.
The Kidney Cells investigation was another way of studying potential human health issues that could occur in space: Kidney stones and osteoporosis, which can happen due to bad kidney health. One aspect of the study focused on the effects of diet, water conservation, space travel and microgravity on kidney health. The other aspect is trying to determine new treatments for kidney stones and osteoporosis.
Koch also worked on the Microgravity Crystals investigation, where she crystallized a protein that’s key for the growth of tumors and cancer. While similar experiments on Earth haven’t provided the desired result, crystal growth has been successful in previous space station experiments. In microgravity, crystals grow larger and appear more organized. The findings from this study could lead to cancer treatments that can efficiently target the protein.
Looking ahead to future missions, Koch helped install the BioFabrication Facility, which can print organ-like tissues in space. This could lead to actually producing whole human organs beyond Earth’s horizons in space. While its difficult for structures like capillaries to be printed on Earth, these structures form much easier in the absence of gravity.