To the Moon: Chancellor Woodson Talks Artemis II and Chasing Dreams with NASA Astronaut Christina Koch
NASA astronaut and three-time NC State alum Christina Koch joins Chancellor Woodson for the first live episode of Red Chair Chats and previews the Artemis II mission, slated to orbit the moon in fall 2024.
Before she was a member of the Artemis II crew, she was an NC State student. Three-time graduate Christina Koch shares why she chose NC State to help her achieve her dream of becoming a NASA astronaut in episode eight of Red Chair Chats with Chancellor Woodson. This episode was recorded in front of a live audience at NC State’s Stewart Theatre following the Chancellor’s Fall Address as part of Red and White Week 2023.
Chancellor Woodson: The future can be uncertain and often out of sight and sometimes out of our hands, in fact, often out of our hands. But we can prepare for it, and we can help to shape it. And no one knows better than our guest today. The promise of a public university is that we provide the ideas and the tools and the community. We are a community to help people get where they want to go, even to the far side of the moon. Our guest today is an astronaut who has spent more than 300 days in space. She’s currently preparing to venture around the moon as part of the second mission for NASA’s Artemis program, and she’s a three-time graduate of NC State University. Please join me in welcoming Christina Koch.
Christina Koch: Hi. Thank you so much.
Chancellor Woodson: Wow. See, I told you they were tired of listening to me. So, Christina, you have undergraduate degrees in physics, in electrical engineering, as well as a master’s in electrical engineering from NC State. And by the way, a graduate of the North Carolina School of Science and Math. And so why did you choose these majors and this university, and why did you choose to stay here for your entire collegiate career?
Christina Koch: I did. It’s like once I came, you guys just couldn’t get rid of me. You know, first off, why did I choose those majors? I always loved the theoretical. I always loved pondering the universe. I loved things that made me feel small. I loved the night sky. And to me, physics represented studying all of those just fundamental things that are universal. But I also love tinkering. My dad and I had what we came to call “shed heaven.” That’s the shed in the backyard where you tinker with everything, you fix the lawnmowers. And I loved hands-on. I loved taking things apart, figuring out how things worked. So I knew I had to put those two things together. And this was a place that both of those programs were phenomenal. I could be close to home. I could be at a public university, which is meant to support the people that are local, that are North Carolinians and that have so much pride in this state. And NC State just represented doers, places where entrepreneurship was valued, places where learning that theoretical side, but also building upon it and contributing back to the world was important. And so it was absolutely the right choice for me.
I stayed because of what I found here. I discovered things like rock climbing right here at NC State, which was instrumental in my life, running, things that really made me who I was beyond just the academics. People and professors, school counselors that believed in me, great friends and opportunities. I studied abroad here. That was an amazing transformational part of my life. And I wouldn’t have stayed for that long if everything that I found here wasn’t so helpful for allowing me to keep doors open and to pursue the things that I saw as leading to a fulfilled life.
Chancellor Woodson: Well, that’s wonderful. Talk about Artemis II. So you’re a mission specialist. I don’t know what that is, maybe these folks do. But tell us about your role in the mission. It’s wonderful you were selected, I mean, a great tribute to you and everything you’ve meant these years to NASA, but also a great reflection on NC State. So talk about the mission and what a mission specialist does.
Christina Koch: Yes. Well, the mission is going around the moon, and it’s part of the first crude mission of the new Artemis program. And Artemis differs from Apollo in that even though we’re going back to the moon, this time we’re going back to stay. We’re going back responsibly and sustainably, and we’re gonna take the lessons we learned there and carry them forward to a human mission to Mars. So it’s an exciting time to be at NASA, seeing all these new vehicles come on board, seeing the launches from Kennedy Space Center. And being a mission specialist is, for any other space nerds out there, that’s a role that has been defined for a long time in the shuttle program. It was what I always saw myself as because I was coming into it from the side of being a civilian astronaut, as my dreams were. And it’s basically contributing to all of the goals of the mission in any way that’s called for.
So for Artemis, we have some goals to test out the spacecraft, the life support systems. This is the first time that humans have ever ridden in the spacecraft for Artemis, which is gonna be called Orion. So we’re gonna be testing out the life support systems. That includes the exercise equipment; that includes the displays, just so we can know about the spacecraft, have insight into it, and to all of these other objectives. Like, we’re going to see if we can turn the spacecraft into a radiation shelter for long-duration space flight and deep space missions. So there’s a lot of really cool objectives. Looking out the window is one of the most important things that we can do as humans. We see our mission as humans to bring every one of y’all’s aspirations and dreams about exploring with us and to bring back the perspectives that we hope to gain looking back at Earth, as it will be one small planet in the space of our window. And what does that mean? What perspective does that give us as humans, and how does it unite us? All of those things are rolled up in this role that we see all four of us having, but especially myself as a mission specialist, and thinking about coming back to you all and talking about that.
Chancellor Woodson: Well, we look forward to that.
Christina Koch: I hope to do it. The welcome I’ve gotten on this trip has been phenomenal. I walked across campus to get here today, and it was great, it was just absolutely wonderful to be reminded of how beautiful this campus is. I didn’t need a map, I didn’t need Google Maps, I just followed my nose. The exact same sidewalks I used to walk, they were all there, it was really cool.
Chancellor Woodson: Well, I did notice a few bricks missing today.
Christina Koch: There were, I didn’t have to go through the Brickyard, but I did take a picture of it to send to my siblings. I’m actually one of four siblings that went to NC State, and they’re gonna be interested to see that too.
Chancellor Woodson: Christina, you set the record for the longest single space flight for a woman. And also during your 328 days on the International Space Station, you took part in the first all-female space walk. We were talking backstage about, this is the weird mind of the chancellor, but you know, I can’t imagine, because our biological systems are all designed for gravity and for circadian rhythms, the daily cycling, and that all goes away on a long space flight. So talk about being in space for 328 days and what it meant for you to be the groundbreaking female to have those.
Christina Koch: Yeah. Well, thank you. When I think about some of those records and milestones, I always like to reflect back that it’s not an individual that does this. These records and milestones aren’t about any one person. They’re actually about the fact that we collectively realize that when we do this, we have to go for all and by all. And that means representing every single person that is willing to work hard to achieve exploration of any kind, but especially human space flight. So to be the person that got to actually fulfill those missions out there was just a dream come true. Something that I hope allows me to thank the people that came before me, the trailblazers, many of whom I met here at NC State or learned of during my time here.
But living on board the space station for that long, it definitely comes with its challenges. You’re away from your support system. You’re away from all the things, all the creature comforts that you’re used to, and you’re faced with a new challenge every day. So I like to tell myself, it wasn’t about the number of days, but it was about bringing my best to every single day. And I’m happy to say, and I continue to say, I can’t wait for these milestones to become normal, for the records to be broken. I’m excited that actually next week we will see the next pair of women go out for a spacewalk since four years ago when Jessica and I did mine. So it’s just exciting to see us continue to push those boundaries.
Chancellor Woodson: Well, it’s been fantastic for all of us. You have become, and I know you know this and probably don’t like to talk about it, but you’ve become a role model and a great advocate for bringing underrepresented students into STEM disciplines like engineering. So what advice would you give to someone watching about following their own passion, whether it’s becoming an astronaut or living out another dream?
Christina Koch: Definitely. I talk about following your passions a lot. And one of the things that’s come into focus for me more recently is finding your passion is important, but also finding fulfillment is really important too. Sometimes we think of passion as something burning in the moment, and that can be what starts you out. But fulfillment is that long-term love of contributing, giving back and finding meaning in what you’re doing no matter what it is. So, “find your fulfillment” is something new that I like to bring to people.
I also say, do what scares you. And I don’t mean recklessly take risks, but instead of bending away from the things that are intimidating to you, thinking about that’s actually your beacon calling you into what maybe you’re meant to do. Things that scare us scare us because they usually intrigue us, but they seem like they’re just outside of our reach or our fear of failure might keep us from moving in that direction. If you actually use what’s scaring you as a call to the direction to move toward, you might just find that not only do you reach your most fulfilled state because you’re contributing the most, but you’re giving the most back to the world as well.
And then finally, I say support the people around you. I definitely relied on the support of a lot of people here at NC State, but probably not enough. I was really into working hard as an individual. And when we support each other, we not only lift our own ships, but everyone rises together. And again, that allows us to give the most back. And I think we also, again, find the most fulfillment in that. It takes the sort of focus off of your own goals and maybe your own check boxes of what you should be doing, but it changes that into, what can we all be doing to make this place better? And you’ll be amazed at what comes out of that on the other end.
Chancellor Woodson: Well, Christina, one of the things that I saw online, you know, that internet out there, y’all are familiar with it? When you returned from that record on the International Space Station, there was a video of you greeting your dog for the first time.
Christina Koch: Yes, she’s very famous.
Chancellor Woodson: That got a lot of attention. But it also was a very humanizing step in your return, and like all good dogs, remembered you well.
Christina Koch: She’s such a sweetheart. So the behind-the-scenes of that is that she actually greets everyone like that no matter who you are.
Chancellor Woodson: You didn’t have to say that.
Christina Koch: And we joke that if my next mission turns out to be the nine days that it’s
planned for the lunar mission, she will barely know that I was gone at all. But yeah. We really put the “human” in “human space flight” quite often. And it’s not just the fact that we miss our pets and our loved ones, but we make mistakes, and we move on, and there’s a give and take, there’s a teamwork, and I love all real human aspects of what I’m privileged to do, for sure.
Chancellor Woodson: For those of you that don’t know, before Christina was selected to be part of the space program, she spent over three years in Antarctica and the Arctic. So this person before you has been a wanderer for a long time. So talk about what drives you to do things. Those are not typical things in the life of, well, this audience. Maybe some of you. But what drives you to explore?
Christina Koch: I did have a very unconventional path to becoming an astronaut. And in some ways, I’m proud of that because it was a very determined kind of plan to not live my life according to check boxes of what you should do to become an astronaut. And one of those was that I had had this desire to explore this interest in exploration and science on the frontiers. That was just always there for me. I cut out pictures of Antarctica maps and had them up in my room as a kid. I had pictures of the shuttle and of Earthrise taken from the moon in my dorm room here at NC State. And those things always drew me in. And so I think the reason I was compelled to live in places where it got colder than minus a hundred degrees and to push those limits was just that I was drawn to it. And I wasn’t afraid of hard work. I wasn’t afraid of being intimidated. I think that I also looked at owing it to the people that supported me. And that goes right back to here. There were counselors and professors that really believed in me, even when I didn’t believe in myself. And knowing that I owed it to them to give it my all and to go in the direction of those dreams was something that definitely compelled me.
Chancellor Woodson: Well, it’s an unusual path, particularly to lead to NASA, and it’s a great tribute to your Think and Do mindset.
Christina Koch: There you go.
Chancellor Woodson: You knew I’d get it in. So we’re all curious about what you eat up in space for 328 days. Do they have freeze-dried ice cream?
Christina Koch: All 328 days. No, I’m kidding. We actually do not have astronaut ice cream as a standard menu item in the space station.
Chancellor Woodson: That’s a problem that we need to solve.
Christina Koch: I know, I feel like I wanted my money back when I found that out. Like, really? Why do you think I’m here? No, the food is great. It’s absolutely wonderful. It’s a very diverse menu. A lot of freeze-dried stuff, so I enjoyed it very much. It ruined me for cooking, because after you just open up your dinner and it’s ready to go, no longer do I want to sit in the kitchen and cook food.
Chancellor Woodson: Well, we were talking earlier, I’m one of those adults, and there are several other gray-haired people in the audience that grew up in the Tang generation. You had to miss a fresh fruit or something occasionally.
Christina Koch: Definitely, yeah, very little fresh stuff. And also not getting to smell things. I drank my coffee out of a pouch with a straw every day. So that’s a little different. That first mug of coffee getting back to Earth was pretty great.
Chancellor Woodson: Well, if you had a favorite flavor of Howling Cow ice cream, what would it be? This is a trick question.
Christina Koch: Right now, or today could be my first time actually trying Howling Cow.
Chancellor Woodson: Oh, well that’s a problem.
Christina Koch: I know. I am hoping we fix that. I’ve heard Wolf Tracks, I’ve heard about Wolf Tracks. I’m a plant.
Chancellor Woodson: It’s pretty good.
Christina Koch: So yeah, I might have to try that one.
Chancellor Woodson: So what’s your most surprising or unusual hobby?
Christina Koch: Surfing.
Chancellor Woodson: Surfing?
Christina Koch: Yes. I’m a surfer. Some people know that. Other than surfing, surprising? Baking, I like to bake.
Chancellor Woodson: So are you a fan of that British English baking show?
Christina Koch: You know, I don’t, I don’t watch a lot of TV. I’ve heard of this show, but I don’t sit down very much in front of the TV.
Chancellor Woodson: Well actually that doesn’t surprise me. So when you were at NC State, it was a different place. Engineering was on main campus. And we had that round building. I forget, what was it?
Christina Koch: Harrelson. My final class ever here was in Harrelson.
Chancellor Woodson: Wow.
Christina Koch: I walked down the little ramp at the end of it and I shed a couple tears.
Chancellor Woodson: I had nothing to do with tearing it down.
Christina Koch: Yeah, no, it’s fine. My sister majored in math, so that was the picture I got for her today.
Chancellor Woodson: Well, where was your favorite place to study?
Christina Koch: I loved studying, if I could manage it, outdoors. So the Court of the Carolinas was one of my favorites, but I also would, when I really needed to focus, I would just go up into D.H. Hill and find a random floor, like sixth floor, and just walk the stacks. And do they still have those desks with the little side walls kind of just at the end of every bookshelf? I don’t even, maybe there aren’t even books there. I need to go check.
Chancellor Woodson: We still have books.
Christina Koch: Oh, OK. That’s good. So sometimes I would just get in there and get in the zone, but yeah, if I could be outside on a day like this, yeah, I would definitely be.
Chancellor Woodson: Well, if you have a chance, I know you’ve been in the Hunt Library since, but you probably haven’t seen the renovation to D.H. Hill.
Christina Koch: I have not.
Chancellor Woodson: So if you’re over that way, you should, because, the stacks aren’t quite what they used to be.
Christina Koch: Maybe I’ll swing by on my way back.
Chancellor Woodson: What’s the most realistic movie about space?
Christina Koch: Well, I would go with “The Martian.” Not maybe that end scene, that was a little much, but you know, how the problem-solving is and how great the teamwork and the NASA aspects were spot on. The other thing was highly non-realistic were the buildings at Johnson Space Center in Houston. Not that fancy. We watched it actually collectively, and that was the one part that every single person from Johnson Space Center laughed at when it came up, was the entrance to our center, because yeah, it’s not that fancy.
Chancellor Woodson: Was mission control accurate in “Apollo 13”?
Christina Koch: Well, in Apollo, I mean, I wasn’t there in the Apollo days, but yes, I think it was.
Chancellor Woodson: No, but they preserved it.
Christina Koch: Yes.
Chancellor Woodson: So don’t start with me. I’ve been there.
Christina Koch: They did, and they just recently renovated it, so it’s actually a really neat thing to visit. And they did, they had it preserved, and I’ve walked around in there. It was really cool.
Chancellor Woodson: What’s amazing to me in walking around the preserved mission control in Houston is how primitive, that in today’s …
Christina Koch: Old rotary telephones, the buttons …
Chancellor Woodson: And we were sending people to the moon.
Christina Koch: We were, I know. They did amazing things.
Chancellor Woodson: Well, so it really was duct tape.
Christina Koch: Literally.
Chancellor Woodson: I’m sorry, I digress. So you grew up in Jacksonville [North Carolina]?
Christina Koch: Yes.
Chancellor Woodson: And not a small community, but not the larger community of our state. And so how do you get from Jacksonville to, and I know this may be the story of the School of Science and Math, but how do you go from there to being in Artemis II?
Christina Koch: I ask myself that all the time. I think one of the most amazing things when I look back is when I was telling people this dream I had to be an astronaut, ever since I was very, very young, no one that I can recall ever discouraged me. I don’t know that that was sound advice, but they encouraged me every single step along the way. And I honestly think it never occurred to me that I shouldn’t go for this dream. I had people, like I said, believe in me even when I didn’t believe in myself. Counselors, teachers, I had a boss one time sit me down and say, you’re gonna do great things one day. And I didn’t know what he was talking about. And it’s really made me realize how important it is for us to tell that to the people around us. And if maybe we aren’t hearing that from the people around us, tell that to ourselves, because it’s really true. So those are some of the things that got me here.
You’re exactly right. I went to this mythical place that I had heard of called the North Carolina School of Science and Math, where I was completely and utterly intimidated so much when I first got there. Everyone there was from really fancy places with really smart people like Raleigh, and Charlotte. And I just came to learn that through hard work and getting to know people, I could get through those experiences. But it’s honestly, in some ways, it’s not just how I did it. It’s the things I should have done. I wasn’t as prone to gravitate towards teamwork and asking for help and relying on my resources as I now realize is so important. And so luckily I had people reaching out to me and guiding me through that. But it really is a testament to what it can mean for someone to believe in you.
Chancellor Woodson: Wow. You took some personal items with you up in space. I don’t know how that works, what you have to hide in your space suit. But I understand that you’ve brought one of those items with you today. And what did you bring back with you today and why?
Christina Koch: Yes, actually it is here today. My new friend Bryce I think has it and can bring it out. He’s an aerospace engineer. And what it was, was a flag that was presented to me during a previous visit to NC State before my mission, and to remind me of where I came from and everything that this university did for me, I brought this with me to space. And I even added a piece of Velcro to the back because that’s how you know something has truly been to space. Everything in the International Space Station has a piece of Velcro on it because that’s the only way that you can keep things down and fix them, so.
Chancellor Woodson: Is this the flag that was in the, when we did the interview with you in space?
Christina Koch: Yes. I hung it up for the interview as well. And it was in the cupola with the background of the Earth, so, yes.
Chancellor Woodson: So when you look back at your time at NC State, what was most memorable?
Christina Koch: Wow. So many things, too many really to even enumerate.
Chancellor Woodson: Doesn’t have to be one. Did you ever trip on the bricks?
Christina Koch: Many times. I’m definitely not known for being super suave. Like I said, a lot of things that became really important in my life started here. I started rock climbing here, I discovered that here, a lot of the extracurriculars that are offered here, the gym, the Carmichael Gym is where I got my start running, which became really important for me. We talked about rock climbing more actually, or maybe as much as we talked about electrical engineering and physics in my astronaut interview. And that started here. My study abroad, I studied abroad in Ghana, and that was a specific program that NC State was one of only a few colleges to offer. And that was by far the most perspective-gaining and life-changing experience of my entire life, right up there with going to space. And that started here.
Actually, this room, I had an amazing experience seeing a phenomenal jazz artist here. I think it was Dee Dee Bridgewater maybe. I’d have to look into that. But she had every single seat in here standing, I think singing along, and just those moments of community were phenomenal. I really got engaged with, I love the history of the civil rights movement, which I learned about a lot here, being in close proximity to Shaw and doing some outreach there. There’s just too many to talk about. It’s just been phenomenal.
Chancellor Woodson: Well, that’s a great list. And for those of you that question the expense of that rock wall in the new Carmichael …
Christina Koch: It was worth it.
Chancellor Woodson: You should go and see the renovation for Carmichael.
Christina Koch: I will.
Chancellor Woodson: It’s phenomenal.
Christina Koch: They gave me a gym pass, I’m going.
Chancellor Woodson: No, they didn’t.
Christina Koch: I asked for one.
Chancellor Woodson: Wow.
Christina Koch: I’m running that blue track again.
Chancellor Woodson: Well, the track is there, but there’s a new track.
Christina Koch: Oh, OK.
Chancellor Woodson: Thank you so much, Christina. Thank you for coming back. Thank you for everything that you do for our country and for the way that you represent NC State to so many people that are aspiring to walk in similar shoes. Not the same but similar. You’re a shining example for our students, for our state, and as I’ve said, for our university. And good luck on your travels beyond just our little blue planet. And we really appreciate all of you coming out to Stewart Theatre today, and those of you watching online, thank you so much for being part of this, and thank you for all you all do on behalf of NC State University, the great Think and Do university. Enjoy this homecoming week. Have a little ice cream and go Pack.