Christina Koch was only in kindergarten when she daydreamed about becoming an astronaut, but she never grew out of that dream.
Always drawn to adventure and exploring new worlds, Koch has been living on the International Space Station as a NASA flight engineer since March, conducting experiments and research and going out on spacewalks.
Koch, 40, is also set to make history as the first woman astronaut to stay in orbit for more than 300 days.
“No one told me I had a crazy dream,” Koch told The News & Observer in an interview from the International Space Station recently. “No one told me I couldn’t do it. And so that dream kept right on growing and growing.”
The NC State University graduate always has been adventurous, pushing herself to channel her fears into sharp focus to accomplish her goals. And her historic path from growing up in Eastern North Carolina to outer space has been unconventional — with a few stops in the arctic between her NASA jobs.
For her accomplishments in space exploration, Koch is The News & Observer’s August Tar Heel of the Month, which honors people who have made significant contributions to North Carolina and the region. Koch will be considered later this year for Tar Heel of the Year, the N&O’s annual honor named in December
Born in Michigan, she grew up in Jacksonville. Koch (then Christina Hammock) explored the coastal areas of her hometown on boating trips. She fell in love with rock climbing in the mountains when she was in college.
While her interest in discovering new frontiers was always present, Koch’s dream of becoming an astronaut took shape with a family trip to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The visit to Cape Canaveral showed her a world she could explore beyond her home state. And it gave her a way to transform that interest into a career.
Preparing to become an astronaut
There’s a distinct sense of pride and duty that shows when Koch talks about her role as a NASA astronaut.
The feeling of being part of something bigger than yourself was ingrained in Koch from a young age, she said. She lived in a multicultural town near Camp Lejeune, the Marine Corps Base, and was around people from all over the world. That exposure helped shape her outlook.
“[It] made me realize that everyone can contribute together and that we work best when we are a diverse group working together,” Koch said. “Those values of treating everyone well and putting people first I think are some of the things I still carry forward with me from North Carolina today.”
Koch credits her parents, Barbara Johnsen and Ronald Hammock, with sparking her curiosity in science, she told The N&O in a 2016 interview. Her mother studied biology, and her father, a now-retired physician, studied chemistry and physics and had a strong interest in astronomy and astrophysics, she said.
“We always had National Geographic and Astronomy magazines and Popular Mechanics lying around the house,” Koch told the N&O then. “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.”
Koch is the oldest of her three siblings. They saw her aspirations from a young age.
“The story is that she wanted to be an astronaut from the time she was in kindergarten,” Koch’s younger sister Denise Clayton told The N&O in a recent phone interview. “It’s something she always wanted and she’s always been really focused on.”
As a kid, Koch covered her bedroom walls with posters of space, gazed up at the stars through her backyard telescope and spent several summers at space camp.
She attended the North Carolina School of Science and Math in Durham, a high school that’s part of the UNC System, which challenged her academically and allowed her to focus on the technical subjects that pushed her in the direction of her aspirations.
It’s also where she found her passion for photography. Clayton, who lives in Durham, said she remembers Koch talking more about her high-speed photography class at the school than any other topic.
“Even though she was always a scientific mind, she had an appreciation for art and photography,” Clayton said. “She got some darkroom equipment and would pursue these other passions, and they all came together in a way that made sense.”
Koch never lost that love of taking photos. Her Twitter and Instagram feeds are filled with breathtaking photos of Earth and space photographed from the International Space Station, where she has been since March 14.
Attending N.C. State
Koch went on to study at N.C. State University, where she earned bachelor’s degrees in physics and electrical engineering and a master’s in electrical engineering over five years.
She credits N.C. State with helping her grow, so much so that she included a memento from the university as one of the few personal items she could bring aboard the International Space Station. N.C. State made a printed circuit board with an etching of the wolf mascot wearing an astronaut helmet. It will return with Koch to Earth next year with an official certificate of authentication, said N.C. state professor Cecilia Townsend.
While Koch was a student at N.C. State, she first got involved in rock climbing, which was offered as a physical education class.
“It sounded really exciting, maybe a way to kind of get outside and have a little adventure,” Koch said in a video for NASA in March.
Rock climbing turned into a favorite hobby that she says helped prepare her for space. The activity aided in her astronaut training, where she had to push herself physically, stay mentally focused and handle special space equipment that’s similar to rock climbing.
It also prompted the most memorable question of her interview in the astronaut-selection process.
“When you rock climb, have you ever been scared?” she was asked.
“The answer to that question was, ‘Absolutely I have been scared,’” Koch recalled in the NASA video. “Turning that fear that you might be having into focus is so important. ... That was a pretty profound moment in my selection process.”
While her experience at N.C. State and in high school were critical to her NASA career, she often credits the people there — the teachers and coaches — who nurtured her ambition and encouraged her to keep pursuing her goals.
John Blondin, an NC State physics professor and senior associate dean for administration, said Koch was a confident and hardworking student, focused on her research and engineering design projects. But what set her apart was her fearlessness.
“She was not afraid to take on anything,” Blondin said in an interview. “She had a thirst for knowledge. She wasn’t there to just get good grades, she was there to learn and get new experiences.”
Koch took advantage of what N.C. State could offer her and, determined to work for NASA, earned the university’s astronaut scholarship that is given to only one student. She’s the first N.C. State graduate to go into space.
Cecilia Townsend, a senior lecturer in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, was Koch’s advisor at NC State and nominated her for the scholarship. She said she admires how Koch took advantage of unconventional opportunities that pushed her ahead in her quest to go to space.
“She didn’t just check the boxes to become [an astronaut],” Townsend said in an interview. “She’s very adventurous, and I think that’s what it takes to be an astronaut. She’s not afraid of anything. She’ll go anywhere and do anything.”
Koch’s college education served as a launching pad for her NASA career, which officially started when she graduated from the NASA Academy program at Goddard Space Flight Center in 2001. More than a decade later, in 2013, she was selected as one of eight members of the 21st NASA astronaut class.
Living at the South Pole
Koch’s adventurous spirit took her all over the world, literally to the ends of the Earth, before she returned to NASA.
Koch’s first full-time job out of college was as an electrical engineer at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center’s Laboratory for High Energy Astrophysics. There, she worked on “scientific instruments on several NASA missions studying cosmology and astrophysics,” according to NASA.
But after two years, she left NASA to work at the South Pole.
“From the outside, quitting your job in NASA is maybe not the right path,” said Clayton, her sister. “It just called to her. She was just drawn towards that type of work and big adventure. ... Now it seems like such the right choice.”
Koch embraced the cold for three years and worked at remote research stations in Antarctica, where she also served on the firefighting and ocean and glacier search and rescue teams.
Her breath would instantly freeze and her eyelashes would frost over, she said in an interview with The News & Observer in 2016, but she enjoyed the work.
“When I was at the South Pole, the coldest it got — and I didn’t go outside — was minus 111,” Koch previously told the N&O. “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.”
In that interview, she said her experience wasn’t too far off from what she’d be tasked with as an astronaut. That included “wearing full cold-weather gear hanging off of scientific towers in the Antarctic and the Arctic” and doing “small, delicate tasks on scientific equipment while you have no dexterity or tactile feedback.”
Koch returned to the United States in 2007 to develop space science instruments for NASA missions as an electrical engineer at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory.
But the world’s most frigid regions called her back in 2010, and Koch spent a few more years as an engineer doing scientific fieldwork in Antarctica, Greenland and Alaska. She then pursued a warmer island life working for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration as station chief of the American Samoa Observatory.
In 2013, after exploring some of the most remote places on Earth, she applied to go to the coldest and most isolated location as an astronaut on the International Space Station.
Life on the International Space Station
Koch left for space in March as a flight engineer for NASA’s expeditions 59, 60 and 61, which launches in October. She’s scheduled to stay in orbit for 328 days, a record for NASA’s longest continuous spaceflight by a woman.
As Koch orbits the Earth traveling at 17,500 mph from about 250 miles up, she says her day is similar to life on Earth, other than the commute to work.
She sits through meetings with her supervisors, eats dinner with her five coworkers, posts on Instagram and Twitter, keeps an eye on the surf swells and catches up on the news while exercising. She even watched the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup soccer games on TV and out the window when they soared over France.
“We do a little bit of all the normal life things,” she said. “It’s just that we do it floating.”
Staying in touch with her family is also part of her routine.
Even from space, Koch talks to her husband, Robert, almost every day, and she emails with her sister regularly. They’ve also done video chats for birthdays every couple of months and talk on the phone every week or two.
“They know it’s important for the astronauts to still feel connected to their world back home,” Clayton said.
While Koch’s downtime might seem normal, she’s certainly doesn’t have a typical 9-to-5 workday. She’s floating around in microgravity, doing maintenance on the space station, working with visiting vehicles and going out on spacewalks.
Koch’s first spacewalk was on March 29 with fellow astronaut Nick Hague. The two worked outside in the vacuum of space for 6 hours and 45 minutes to upgrade the International Space Station’s power storage capacity.
“The actual experience of going out the door is almost indescribable,” Koch said from the space station. “To see the Earth below you when we could take a break... to appreciate the environment around us was very special.”
That day was an incredible personal achievement, Koch said, and an honor professionally because she’s serving the space program she has respected her entire life.
“I’m able to contribute to this program to keep the space station running at peak capacity at all times and to be part of that puzzle to make that happen,” Koch said.
A future moon mission?
After this series of missions, Koch could be sent to the moon.
NASA plans to send its second set of astronauts to the moon in 2024. And for the first time in history, it could be a woman taking those steps on the moon’s surface.
“It’s incredibly exciting, and that means someone in our astronaut corps today will be the person or the people to walk on the moon next,” Koch told the N&O in July, shortly before the anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing and moonwalk.
And if there’s a mission to Mars, Koch said she will be ready for it — once again fearlessly seeking adventure and craving exploration.
Those attributes have guided Koch’s journey so far and left a lasting impression on her younger sister. Clayton said she saw that side of her sister come out when Koch spoke at the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences Astronomy Days in Raleigh in 2016.
“[Koch] said to pursue the things that scare you,” Clayton said. “‘The fact that it scares you means that it’s meaningful to you and that’s how you can pinpoint where you need to go.’”
Tar Heel of the Month: Christina Koch
Hometown: Jacksonville, N.C.
Education: North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics in Durham; Bachelor’s degrees in electrical engineering and physics, North Carolina State University (2001); master’s degree in Electrical Engineering (2002).
Accomplishments: Selected as one of eight members of the 21st NASA astronaut class in 2013; NASA Group Achievement Award (2012); Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, Invention of the Year nominee (2009); United States Congress Antarctic Service Medal with Winter‐Over distinction (2005); NASA Group Achievement Award (2005); Astronaut Scholar, Astronaut Scholarship Foundation (2000-01).
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BEHIND OUR REPORTING
How did we report this story?
Doing an interview from space with NC state graduate Christina Koch — orbiting earth on the International Space Station — presented some logistical details to work through. After requesting the interview from NASA in April, we were told we could have a 10-minute window of time on July 1 and would learn just a few days before when that would be.
When the day came, NASA called The News & Observer about an hour before the scheduled time. ABC11, The N&O’s newsgathering partner, had a 10-minute slot before us. Then we waited. During ABC11’s interview, we watched Koch do a flip to illustrate microgravity.
We had a script to follow to ensure that Koch could hear us, and we could hear her — a sound check of sorts. Our reporter, Kate Murphy, spoke to Koch on a landline while watching her on NASA’s online TV channel. But due to a lag between question and answer — about 1 minute and a half — we eventually muted the channel. The interview was live on NASA’s website, so the world could watch as we learned how Koch is making history in outer space.