As Christina Koch watched NASA’s Juno mission launch in 2011 from the Cape Canaveral grandstands in Florida, she thought that moment was the closest she’d get to fulfilling her dream of going to space.
The former electrical engineer at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) worked on Juno’s Jupiter Energetic Particle Detector Instrument (JEDI) during her two-year stint, leaving her feeling satisfied knowing the detectors would contribute to space exploration.
In December, Koch returned to the APL campus in Laurel, Maryland, to deliver a colloquium on human spaceflight. Not only had she fully realized her dream of traveling to space, but she now owns the record for the longest single spaceflight by a woman in human history at 328 days. She is one of four NASA astronauts chosen for the agency’s Artemis II flight test to the Moon.
“I have a lot of fond memories working at APL,” Koch said after her talk, in which she described her career path from the Antarctic to the International Space Station (ISS). “I had a lot of great mentors and great friends here. The culture here is very positive, encouraging and super intellectual, which I love.”
From APL to ISS
Koch started her career with roles at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center and the United States Antarctic Program, which included a yearlong stay at the South Pole.
In 2007, she joined APL as an electrical engineer and worked on JEDI, used on NASA’s Juno mission to explore our solar system’s largest planet. Koch also assisted with the development of the Radiation Belt Storm Probes Ion Composition Experiment, used on the Van Allen Probes, which provided crucial insight into Earth’s radiation belts.
Former APL colleagues recall Koch’s deep knowledge of electrical engineering and physics and her positive, can-do attitude.
“It was a pleasure to work with her,” said Chuck Schlemm, a space systems engineer who teamed with Koch when she worked at APL. “Her mindset was that everything had a solution and she was working on it.”
Barry Mauk, who served as lead co-investigator on JEDI, said Koch played a big role in designing and implementing calibration systems and managing a particle accelerator capable of testing the instrument’s sensors in four dimensions.
“It turned out to be absolutely critical for calibrating,” recalled Mauk. “Her staging device made that so much easier.”
Koch resumed remote scientific field work with stops in Antarctica and Greenland before NASA accepted her into the astronaut training program in 2013.
The APL Influence
Koch had always shied away from talking about records. In her mind, she wanted to stay humble and focus on the mission. That’s until she received an email from a former APL colleague.
After her mission on the ISS was extended to a record-breaking duration, Schlemm congratulated his former co-worker in an email. After Koch downplayed the accolade, Schlemm reminded her how much milestones mean to other people.
“I realized that I was taking that away from people in not recognizing it myself,” she said. “That was really a pivotal moment for me because it gave me the impression that what I had the honor of doing was for so many more people than just me or the immediate space program.”
“I hadn’t really intended it but it sounded like it sort of changed her perspective from there forward, so it put me over the moon,” Schlemm said after hearing Koch tell the story of that email.
APL has helped shape Koch’s career in other ways, too. She said the Lab helped her learn about patience when working with complex systems, as well as about teamwork and leadership since she served as both a team lead and hardware lead during her tenure.
“I remember just being surprised that people believed in me so much, and it caused me to really look for what they saw and start to believe in myself more,” she said.
To commemorate her time at APL, Koch brought a Juno patch and lapel pin to the ISS, which she then returned to the Lab as a memento to honor her former colleagues.
Through Adversity to the Stars
Koch said she had to “learn five new careers in two years.” Training required learning how to fly a jet, operate a robotic arm, navigate the ISS’s systems and speak Russian. Koch also trained at NASA’s Neutral Buoyancy Lab, a 200-foot-long indoor pool that astronaut prospects use to practice spacewalks.
“My job was to show up and be bad at something to try to figure it out, because basically that’s how it felt,” Koch joked about her experience in astronaut training.
Koch’s first voyage as an astronaut was an 11-month visit to the ISS. She said that first view of Earth from the station left her in awe.
“It just completely surprised me how moving it was to see the perspective of your home in its actual place in a bigger universe,” Koch said. “It was incredible.”
During three ISS expeditions, she helped test free-flying robotic assistants, tested a three-dimensional bioprinter, and helped extend the life span of the station’s Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, which collects and analyzes information from stars and galaxies millions of light years from the Milky Way.
Koch participated in 14 spacewalks during her time on the ISS, either in support of others outside the station or as an active member of the spacewalk itself. She also made history in 2019 as part of the first all-woman spacewalk.
Koch said what made that spacewalk so special was that its goal was mapped out in roughly a week, whereas a typical spacewalk is planned years in advance.
“We worked with ground teams for a week, figuring out how we could do this spacewalk to fix something that broke unexpectedly, and we made it happen,” said Koch. “It was an absolutely awesome experience.”
Living the Space Life
What exactly do you do in space when you’re not working? Astronauts receive supplies through cargo vehicles that fly in formation with the ISS before they’re snatched up by the robotic arm and docked at the station. Once astronauts unpack all the new food, science instruments and supplies, they load up the cargo vehicle with trash and set it free, where it eventually burns up in the atmosphere.
The ISS is equipped with resistance machines so astronauts can minimize loss of muscle or bone density. Astronauts sleep in rooms the size of a phone booth while inside a sleeping bag so they don’t float away while snoozing. And there’s room for some fun, too, as demonstrated by a clip Koch showed of her and another astronaut playing pickleball with a blob of water.
“I’m not great at sports on Earth, but I can catch a football in space,” Koch said to laughter from the APL colloquium crowd.
In 2020, after a record-setting 328 days, Koch returned to Earth.
“I loved it on the ISS,” she said. “When it was time to come home realizing that this mission had actually happened and I — no kidding — was going to see my family again, it was absolutely overwhelmingly joyful.”
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