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As moon landing anniversary arrives, astronaut Christina Koch makes history of her own

Outer space interview with NC State grad Christina Koch

North Carolina's Christina Koch, a flight engineer on Expedition 60, spoke with The News & Observer from the International Space Station on Monday, July 1, 2019 about her career, what it's like to live on a space station, and much more.
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North Carolina's Christina Koch, a flight engineer on Expedition 60, spoke with The News & Observer from the International Space Station on Monday, July 1, 2019 about her career, what it's like to live on a space station, and much more.

As a young girl, Christina Koch gazed up at the night sky through her family’s telescope in the backyard of her eastern North Carolina home.

Now, at age 40, she looks down at her hometown of Jacksonville through the glare of a space helmet from 200 miles up — traveling at 17,500 mph — aboard the International Space Station.

“Most kids probably dream of becoming an astronaut. I was just the one that never grew out of it,” said Koch in an interview Monday with The News & Observer from the space station.

Koch, a graduate of N.C. State University, left for space March 14 and has been in orbit for just over 100 days as a flight engineer for NASA’s expedition 59 and 60.

She spoke to The News & Observer, microphone in hand, while hovering inside the space station. Her curly hair floated around her head, waving back and forth as if she were underwater.

“Raleigh News & Observer, the International Space Station has you loud and clear,” Koch said to kick off the interview.

Her time in space coincides with a historic moment — the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11, the NASA spaceflight that landed the first two people on the moon.

NASA astronaut Christina Koch, the first NC State graduate to go into space, will set a record for the longest single space flight by a woman before she returns to Earth in Feb. 2020. She talks about being on the International Space Station.

Monday, she reflected on her own time orbiting the Earth so far. She answered questions about her early interest in space exploration, how her time at the North Carolina School of Science and Math and NC State prepared her, and how she is now a part of the space program’s history as she lives on the space station and conducts experiments.

She said she feels honored to contribute to the program she has admired her entire life. Her mission is expected to make history. If all goes as planned, Koch will be the first woman astronaut to stay in orbit for more than 300 days. In February, her 328 days will break the record for NASA’s longest continuous spaceflight by a woman. The current U.S. record is Scott Kelly’s 340 days.

Koch’s first spacewalk originally was planned with astronaut Anne McClain. It would have been NASA’s first all-female spacewalk, but there weren’t enough space suits to fit the two women. Instead, on March 29, she and fellow astronaut Nick Hague worked outside in the vacuum of space for 6 hours and 45 minutes to upgrade the International Space Station’s power storage capacity.

The spacewalk wasn’t just an incredible personal achievement, Koch said, but also an honor professionally because she is a piece of the International Space Station’s puzzle.

“I’m able to contribute to this program to keep the space station running at peak capacity at all times,” Koch said.

The spacewalk also changed her perspective on how she sees the world. It’s different from just looking out the window of the space station because she’s immersed in the vacuum of space.

“When you look down on the earth, you’re one less step removed than when you’re inside,” Koch said. “And that leads you to think how much more amazing it would be to walk on another celestial body and have your view of the Earth encompass the entire Earth.”

“To have that view... and to recognize that all of humanity clings to our planet together as one,” she said.

NASA has plans to send its second set of astronauts to the moon in 2024 for the first moon mission since 1972. This go-round, a woman could step foot on the moon’s surface for the first time.

“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 said.

And beyond the moon, a mission to Mars could happen in Koch’s lifetime.

“As astronauts one of the things that we sign up for is to be ready for any eventuality,” Koch said. “We would all be ready and it would be an honor for all of us to be able to do that.”

NC State engineering and physics alumnus Christina Koch is heading to the International Space Station on M arch 14, 2019. and will be part of the first all-female space walk team later in the month. Here are five things to know about her.

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.

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