She’s Out of This World: Grand Rapids Native Pioneers Space Travel for Women
Jun 22, 2020 06:02AM
By Kayla Sosa
Michigan native and astronaut Christina Koch has certainly left her mark on the state, the world and even beyond. As one of the first women to walk in space and having broken the record for the longest continuous time in space as a woman in 2019, she has a list of achievements to look back on.
“A lot of kids dream about being an astronaut,” Koch said. “I just never outgrew it.”
Koch was born in January of 1979 in Grand Rapids and lived in the Dearborn area for a while before moving with her family to North Carolina as a young child. With family still in the Sparta area north of Grand Rapids, Koch spent her summers on the family farms in Michigan.
"I still feel really tied to the area, and I’m really glad to have been from West Michigan,” Koch said.
Studying both physics and electrical engineering at North Carolina State University, Koch graduated with two bachelor’s degrees and graduated from the NASA Academy Program at the Goddard Space Flight Center. Immediately out of college, Koch was hired by NASA as an electrical engineer and over the years contributed to multiple scientific instruments on several space missions.
Almost foreshadowing her future space mission, Koch spent 2004-2007 traveling the Arctic and Antarctic regions, spending a lot of time in isolation and freezing temperatures.
“After I was seeing some of my work launched into space and the missions fulfilled, I went back to working in remote science spaces, like Antarctica,” Koch said.
Koch went back and forth between working in the south pole and electrical engineering for NASA. She later worked for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration before being selected by NASA to be part of Astronaut Group 21 in 2013. In March of 2019, and after years of training and waiting, Koch finally launched for the first time from Earth to the International Space Station. During her 328-day trip, Koch participated in multiple historic, all-women spacewalks and broke the record for being the first woman to stay that long in space. Before Koch, Peggy Whitson previously held the record for 289 days. Koch’s mission is now being used as research for the physical, biological, and mental effects of long-term space travel on women.
Today, Koch lives near Houston, Texas, where the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is headquartered.
“I like to say that my career is kind of two-fold,” Koch said. “It was working as an electrical engineer for space science instrument missions for NASA and then working as a field engineer or research associate in remote science spaces all over the world.”
Koch said she always knew from the time she was young that she had an interest in space.
“Growing up, I was inspired by the night sky, I was inspired by the ocean,” Koch said. “Family trips to the Kennedy Space Center got me interested even more. Actually, as a kid, I had posters in my bedroom of both Antarctica and space because I think I was just really drawn to this idea of science and exploration of the frontier.”
When she left Earth as a “rookie” last year, she didn’t know that she would have such an extended stay in space.
“Coming back to Earth has allowed me to kind of gauge just how transformative it was both on a personal level and then also the accomplishments that I was able to contribute to professionally for NASA and for advancing the goals of the space station,” Koch said, describing the International Space Station as a scientific laboratory that does unique research that can only be done in microgravity.
“All the benefits of that research are meant to come back to Earth and benefit our life on Earth,” Koch said. “So we do science everywhere in every realm from fundamental physics to medical research, human research, space science, Earth science, technology development - everything you can think of basically there’s a way that we have found microgravity can inform and help us push the boundaries of our knowledge.”
For example, Koch looked at protein crystals, which grow better in microgravity than on Earth, for pharmaceutical research.
“I got a chance to see with my own eyes crystals that had never been seen before that could eventually be used to treat diseases here on Earth,” Koch said. “That was an honor.”
Beyond that, Koch participated in multiple historic space walks and did months of research and work while she was at the space station.
“Everything that meant to us professionally and hopefully to the world as well was just a significant part of the mission,” Koch said. “I would say that stands out as my number one memorable event that I got to participate in.
While she doesn’t live in Michigan anymore, Koch felt a sense of home when she looked at Earth from space and easily made out the familiar Mitten-shaped state surrounded by blue waters.
“Almost anywhere on Earth, it is one of the most recognizable places,” Koch said. “It was awesome to be able to pick out so precisely where I was born, where I was from, where I knew my family was, where I knew our farms were, to be able to see that from space and Michigan’s position not only on the Earth but in the Universe. I felt very fortunate to be from such a distinctive region.”