_pace, the Final Frontier
In a triumphant return to Astronomy Days at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, astronaut Christina Koch spells out how even a simple game of Scrabble can take an unexpected turn when you're floating in zero gravity.
Astronaut Christina Koch has a secret. Does NASA — the all-knowing, all-monitoring, all-cataloging United States space agency — have any idea?
She’s not sure.
Koch, the three-time NC State graduate who spent more time at the International Space Station than any female astronaut in history, left a magnetic Scrabble tile somewhere in the International Space Station.
Koch loves the boomer board game. She and her husband are equally bad at it, she says, which makes them perfect playing partners. So she thought it would be fun to take the family travel version of the crossword game with her on her extended 11-month mission to space, an introvert’s attempt to do something social with the other astronauts during her rare down times at the station. She had to find something to do while she was off the clock during those record-setting 334 days on the ISS besides reading, watching home-improvement television shows or playing space-capsule football.
Unfortunately, none of the other six American nor Russian astronauts were fans of the game. She only managed to convince them to play with her once, as entertainment extortion on her birthday.
And that’s when one of the S tiles floated away in the weightless interior of the station, hopefully not to stick to an important instructional label like “Do Not Open.”
Back From Space
Koch, a native of Michigan who grew up in Jacksonville, N.C., and attended both the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics and NC State, returned to her home state over the weekend for three standing-room-only, hour-long presentations at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences’ Astronomy Days, a triumphant return after three years off for the kid-friendly program because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The 256-seat WRAL 3D Theater was full of proxy space travelers, young and old, including many of Koch’s newest family members, there to see Aunty Astronaut for the first time since her return to Earth on Feb. 6, 2020.
Most of her three 15-minute question-and-answer sessions following her presentation were filled with the questions of wonder and utilitarian information the younger generation wanted to know.
“How was your cell service?” Not good. Cellular satellites don’t aim up to the space station 250 miles above Earth’s service. It does, however, have 600 mbps satellite-connected internet service that is much faster than the 42.3 mbps average for high-speed internet in North Carolina.
“Do you have to do laundry in space?” Thankfully, no, it was not among the many cleaning activities all astronauts are responsible for while at the station. Clothing gets extended use in space. Koch said she wore pants for a month, shirts for a week and daily workout wear once or twice before putting them in the trash capsule to be jettisoned from the ISS and burned up during re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere. Replacements are sent up in the regularly scheduled provisions rocket.
“What did you miss most about home?” Koch said she never got homesick until the final weeks of her mission. That’s when she thought about the most basic human sensations, things not possible in the ISS or on a spacewalk. “I would close my eyes and imagine what it would feel like to have wind on my face,” she says. “It was the weirdest thing to not remember what that felt like.”
“Were you scared?” The answer, of course, is “Yes.” Stepping out into the vacuum of space in an oversized astronaut suit for the first time was daunting. On one of her six spacewalks, her helmet light went out and she conducted important repairs to the exterior in almost total darkness. Koch, however, turned her fear into focus and went about her required tasks without thinking too much about the endless expansion at the end of her tether. “Those are the times you just have to wait for your training to kick in,” she says.
Just as she did when she went on her NC State Study Abroad trip to Ghana, Koch overcame any hesitancy or fear about her mission, during which she and fellow astronaut Jessica Weir conducted the first three all-female spacewalks in ISS history.
There were plenty of emotional moments that Koch didn’t expect, especially when she looked down at Earth and saw a thin line of land jutting into the Atlantic that she could follow up the mouth of the New River to her hometown and her home state.
“The biggest surprise I had was how amazing it was to look down and see North Carolina,” Koch says. “I thought it would be kind of neat, but it had a deeper impact on me to see all the places that formed my memories, the place that formed me, to see the place where all the people who supported me and my dream to become an astronaut lived.
“It was a profound, perspective-changing moment that I was unprepared for.”
Back to Space?
These are exciting times for Koch and the United States space program, which has declared its intention to return to the moon through the 8-year-old Artemis program. Last year, Koch was selected as one of the 18 Artemis-assigned astronauts. The program has already orbited the moon, has plans to land a craft on the lunar surface without a crew next year and, dramatically, return to the dusty plain with a full crew in 2025.
NASA has not yet announced who will be on that landing crew, though it is important to note that a female astronaut has never walked on the moon.
Koch will be ready if asked.
“I hope I can do another space mission,” she says. “I’m still an active astronaut, so after you complete your space mission, you basically get a technical assignment, a ground job. I’ve had a couple of different roles since I’ve been back, which has been great. I love contributing to human space flight in other ways.
“I’m definitely keeping up my training, though, so I can be assignable to any mission, so I’ll get the chance to do it again.”