Earlier this week, NASA Astronaut Christina Koch broke the record for the longest time spent in space by any woman. She surpassed the previous record set by another prolific NASA astronaut, Peggy Whitson. It seems likely that Koch’s new record will stand for some time, as she still has six weeks left aboard the International Space Station before she catches her scheduled ride home.
Peggy Whitson, is a now-retired astronaut that holds a number of impressive records and titles, including serving as the first female commander of the International Space Stations (ISS) and being the first woman to command the station twice. She set the single longest space flight record for women back in 2017, at 289 days, 5 hours and 1 minute. Koch surpassed that milestone at 6:16 p.m. CST on Saturday.
“Having the opportunity to be up here for so long is truly an honor,” said Koch during a series of press interviews on Thursday. “Peggy is a heroine of mine and has also been kind enough to mentor me through the years, so it is a reminder to give back and to mentor when I get back.”
Not unlike Whitson, Koch has had a knack for breaking records. Although this is her first time in space, she also set another record during her tour on the ISS in October when she and fellow NASA astronaut Jessica Meir performed the first ever all-female extra-vehicular mission, or spacewalk.
Koch’s record-setting stint on the space station began on March 14, though at the time, neither NASA nor Koch herself had any intention of breaking any records. Plans to extend her stay were announced in April, in part because it enabled a reshuffling of schedules to get the United Arab Emirates first ever astronaut up to the ISS, and also because NASA saw an opportunity to further study the prolonged effects of space flight.
As NASA sets its sights on establishing a manned installation on or in orbit around the moon and conducting longer duration missions to Mars, it has become more important than ever to study the effects that prolonged stay in space has on the human anatomy.
“It is a wonderful thing for science. We see another aspect of how the human body is affected by microgravity [in] the long term. That is really important for our future spaceflight plans, going forward to the moon and Mars,” said Koch.
By the time Koch’s run on the ISS is over, she will be just 12 days shy of the record for the longest duration spaceflight by any NASA astronaut; a title currently held by Scott Kelly for his “year long” mission in space that included comparing the physiological effects of space flight to his twin brother that had remained on earth. However, Koch doesn’t seem eager to break that record, nor does she seem all that concerned about the new record she’s currently setting. Instead, her focus remains on the mission at hand.
“I like to think of the record as not so much about how many days you’re up here, but what you bring to each day, so [it is] another great reminder to just bring your best,” Koch said.