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Astronaut Christina Koch talks space at Astronomy Days

Astronaut Christina Hammock Koch, who grew up in Eastern North Carolina and attended the School of Science and Math and N.C. State University, recently completed astronaut training at NASA. She’ll talk about her life and work at the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences this weekend.
Astronaut Christina Hammock Koch, who grew up in Eastern North Carolina and attended the School of Science and Math and N.C. State University, recently completed astronaut training at NASA. She’ll talk about her life and work at the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences this weekend. NASA - JSC

Even before she became an astronaut, Christina Koch lived a life of exploration and adventure.

She has worked in remote research labs in frigid Barrow, Alaska, and tropical American Samoa. She has spent several seasons in Antarctic research stations, including one during the southernmost continent’s sunless winter. While there, in addition to her scientific and engineering duties, she was a member of the firefighting and search-and-rescue teams. And if that’s not enough, she’s also an award-nominated inventor.

“I invented an algorithm for starting micro turbo-molecular vacuum pumps to be used in science instruments on a future Mars rover,” she explains and then pauses, aware the journalist on the other end of the phone has no idea what that means. “That’s what I used to do.”

Her journey to adventure and accolades, however, started in eastern North Carolina – in Jacksonville, where the Michigan-born Koch grew up. She went to the School of Science and Math and then N.C. State University, where she earned three degrees in five years. Saturday, as part of Raleigh’s Museum of Natural Sciences’ Astronomy Days, she comes home to North Carolina to talk about her career path, her recently completed astronaut training, and how NASA contributes to the search for life on other planets.

We called Houston and asked Koch about her remarkable occupation; she hasn’t received her first off-planet mission just yet, she says, but NASA is keeping her busy and fulfilled regardless. Read the rest of our conversation below.

Q: I read that you’ve lived places where it actually gets cold.

A: Yes. I’ve been in minus 105, myself, outside. When I was at the South Pole the coldest it got and I didn’t go outside was minus 111. That was during the winter, so it’s dark 24 hours a day, and for some of our jobs we are required to go outside, even in weather like that. They give you all the gear you need and you are able to stay comfortable as long as you don’t go outside for too long.

I felt like once it got in the minus 100s, about 30 minutes was all I could really do outside before I needed to come in and warm up. Your breath, obviously you can see it, but you can hear it because it freezes instantly. Your eyelashes get completely frosted over. You can’t wear goggles because they freeze up. You cover everything except for a little slit to see out of.

Q: How comparable is that to wearing a spacesuit?

A: The lack of dexterity and the lack of mobility are very similar. When I first got into a spacesuit, that was my initial thought. I’ve done work wearing full cold-weather gear hanging off of scientific towers in the Antarctic and the Arctic. Having to actually do small, delicate tasks on scientific equipment while you have no dexterity or tactile feedback is something that’s very transferrable. The patience you have to have in situations like that was not new to me when I first got into a spacesuit (laughs).

I felt like once it got in the minus 100s, about 30 minutes was all I could really do outside before I needed to come in and warm up.

Astronaut Christina Koch, of her research work at the South Pole

Q: How does one come from a childhood in Eastern North Carolina to being an astronaut?

A: I have wanted to be an astronaut for as long as I can remember, even when I was a very young girl in Eastern North Carolina. I credit my parents for that because they are both from scientific backgrounds. My mom studied biology and my dad studied chemistry and some physics and he is a physician, but he had a very strong interest in astronomy and astrophysics and exploration in general. We always had National Geographic and Astronomy magazines and Popular Mechanics lying around the house. I got interested in exploration and different parts of the world and different parts of the universe just from seeing those things around the house and the different discussions we had as a family. I’m really proud of my parents.

Q: How did N.C. State prepare you for the field you’re in today?

A: I was able to come up with a study plan that really met the two things that I was interested in, those being theoretical and applied physical sciences. I double-majored in physics and electrical engineering there, and I had a lot of support through both of my advisers. Also, it offered a lot of extracurricular activities that had to do with some of my interests in social equality, and that has driven my interest in outreach and utilizing people’s interest in space and exploration as a way to reach and inspire students of all kinds.

Q: You completed astronaut training in June of last year. What goes into that that might not cross the average person’s mind?

A: The average person might not know that we train to fly in supersonic jets as a way to maintain our vigilance at problem-solving in real time in potentially emergency situations. People might not know that we learn the Russian language. So I now speak Russian.

Q: The popular, romantic notion is of people flying off into space, but that’s not all of NASA. Why don’t you tell me about the rest of NASA?

A: NASA is really kind of an analogue to a complete society within itself. To do things that are as complicated and challenging as spaceflight, you have to have all disciplines represented to get the job done. It’s a unique field in that sense, and I encourage anyone who is interested in those things to consider NASA as a potential place where they can apply their talents.

Astronomy Days

When: 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday; noon-5 p.m. Sunday

Where: N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences, 101 W. Jones St., Raleigh

Cost: Free

Info: 919-707-9800 or naturalsciences.org

Note: Koch is scheduled to speak at 11:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday

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