STORY WRITTEN FOR CBS NEWS & USED WITH PERMISSION
Christina Koch, veteran of six spacewalks outside the International Space Station — including the first all-female excursion — will join a Russian commander and an Italian flight engineer for a fiery plunge back to Earth early Thursday, setting a new world record for the longest single flight by a female astronaut.
While she did not set out to be a role model when she applied to join NASA’s astronaut corp, she’s happy to do whatever she can to inspire young people to pursue their dreams, helping them “kind of tune in and pay attention” to the opportunities opening up in space.
“And then the second aspect of that is inspiration,” she said in a space-to-ground interview Tuesday with CBS News. “I think some people draw inspiration from milestones and from things that they’ve seen someone work hard to achieve.
“So I hope that those two things together, outreach and inspiration, make it worth all the talk about these different things that we’ve had the honor to do.”
Strapped into the center seat of the cramped Soyuz MS-13/59S ferry ship, commander Alexander Skvortsov, flanked on the left by Italian co-pilot Luca Parmitano and on the right by Koch, planned to undock from the space station’s upper Poisk module at 12:50 a.m. EST Thursday.
Monitoring the departure from inside the lab complex will be Expedition 62 commander Oleg Skripochka and Koch’s spacewalking partners, astronauts Jessica Meir and Drew Morgan.
After moving a safe distance away, Skvortsov plans to oversee an automated rocket firing starting at 3:18 a.m., a four-minute 38-second braking “burn” intended to slow the ship by about 286 mph. That’s just enough to drop the far side of the spacecraft’s orbit deep into the atmosphere, setting up a landing on the snowy steppe of Kazakhstan.
About a half hour later, after jettisoning the ship’s no-longer-needed lower propulsion module and upper orbital compartment, the crew module is expected to slam back into the discernible atmosphere around 3:49 a.m. at an altitude of 62 miles.
Twenty-three minutes later, descending under a large orange-and-white parachute, the crew compartment will settle to a jarring rocket-assisted touchdown at 4:12 a.m. (3:12 p.m. local time) near the town of Dzhezkazgan.
While hitting the atmosphere at nearly five miles per second and enduring re-entry temperatures around 2,000 degrees would be daunting to most, Koch said the Soyuz spacecraft is one of the most reliable ever built.
“Also my friends all tell me that the ride under the parachutes is the ride of your life,” she added. “So if you just look at it like that, like it’s really fun, then you’ll have a great time and you’ll be fine.”
She’s especially looking forward to “seeing the plasma go by on the window when we’re actually doing re-entry and the G’s are starting to hit. I think that will really make it feel real, that I’m actually coming back from space.”
Russian recovery crews, along with NASA and European Space Agency flight surgeons and support personnel, will be stationed nearby to help the returning station fliers out of the Soyuz for initial medical checks, traditional fresh fruit and satellite phone calls home to family and friends.
From the landing site, all three crew members will be flown by helicopter to Karaganda. From there, Skvortsov will take a Russian jet back to Star City near Moscow while Koch and Parmitano fly on to Cologne, Germany, aboard a NASA plane. Parmitano will get off there and Koch will continue on to Houston for debriefing and rehabilitation.
AFTER 11 MONTHS IN SPACE, READJUSTING TO GRAVITY
Koch grew up in Jacksonville, N.C., and now lives near the Johnson Space Center in Houston. She holds a master’s degree in electrical engineering and is an experienced surfer who enjoys backpacking and rock climbing. Despite daily exercise sessions during her mission, readjusting to gravity after 328 days in the weightless environment of space will take weeks.
“Everyone says that getting back into gravity is such a surprise because you suddenly have to actually work to raise your own arms and of course your legs,” Koch said. “They say that when the G’s first start to hit as you’re coming through the layers of the atmosphere, that even when you’re at point two of a G, essentially, you can already feel it, it already feels so, so heavy.
“So I think that will be definitely something to get used to. I haven’t had to hold up even my own body weight in a long time, so we’ll see how that goes.”
For Skvortsov and Parmitano, launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome on July 20, landing will close out a voyage spanning 200 days 16 hours and 44 minutes, covering 3,216 orbits and 85.2 million miles. Including two earlier station visits, Skvortsov’s total time in space will stand at 546 days while Parmitano’s total over two flights will total 367 days.
Koch was already aboard the station when Skvortsov and Parmitano arrived. With landing Thursday, her time off planet will stand at 328 days 13 hours and 58 minutes, the longest single flight by a female astronaut or cosmonaut. Her voyage covered 5,248 orbits and 139 million miles.
Asked what she will miss the most about life in space, Koch said “number one, hands down,” is her crewmates.
“We are like family, we support each other, we work together, we have the same dreams and it’s been awesome to basically get to know another set of people outside my own family on Earth so well.
“And I think definitely the other thing I’m going to miss the most, is being able to do this whenever I want,” she said, flipping around in weightlessness. “Microgravity is a lot of fun. I haven’t actually put my feet down or walked in a long time, and it’s really fun to be in a place where you can just bounce around between the ceiling and the floor whenever you want.”
As for what she’s looking forward to the most back on Earth, her husband, family and friends ranks at the top of the list. After that? Enjoying the outdoors.
“I live near the beach and I absolutely love the water, so hopefully going for a swim or a surf or just walking my dog on the beach, feeling the sand, feeling the wind,” she said. “Those are things that you can’t really replicate up here, so I can’t wait to be out in nature.”
She did not have long to wait, with landing targeted for the snow-covered steppe of Kazakhstan where temperatures hovered in the mid 20s and the wind chill was around 14 degrees.
While very different from the controlled environment aboard the space station, cold weather was nothing new to Koch, who spent multiple winters in Antarctica and Greenland as a research engineer with Johns Hopkins University and the national Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration before joining NASA’s astronaut corps in 2013.
A RECORD STAY IN SPACE
Koch’s record flight is just 12 days short of the U.S. single-flight endurance record set by former astronaut Scott Kelly. She now ranks No. 7 on the list of most experienced NASA astronauts and 50th in the world.
During her stay aboard the station, Koch participated in six spacewalks totaling 42 hours and 15 minutes. She and Meir carried out the first all-female spacewalk last Oct. 18, replacing a faulty solar array battery charge controller, and two more on Jan. 15 and 20 to complete work started last year to replace a set of solar array batteries.
During their historic first spacewalk together, “we caught each other’s eye and we knew that we were really honored with this opportunity to inspire so many,” Koch said in a NASA interview. “And just hearing our voices talk to mission control, knowing two female voices had never been on the loops, solving those problems together outside, it was a really special feeling.”
Koch’s record-setting mission began on March 14 when she blasted off aboard the Soyuz MS-12/58S spacecraft with commander Alexey Ovchinin and NASA astronaut Nick Hague.
Ovchinin and Hague endured a dramatic launch abort the previous October when their booster suffered a catastrophic failure two minutes after liftoff. Instead of reaching orbit, the Soyuz executed an emergency landing, touching down safely about 250 miles from the Baikonur Cosmodrome.
U.S. and Russian station managers opted to send Ovchinin and Hague back up last March, adding Koch to the Soyuz MS-12/58S crew. NASA eventually extended the missions of both Koch and Morgan, re-assigning her to Morgan’s original seat aboard the Soyuz MS-13/59S spacecraft for the trip back to Earth Thursday.
Morgan’s stay aboard the station was extended to April 17 when he will return to Earth with Skripochka and Meir aboard their Soyuz MS-15/61S ferry ship. They will be replaced by NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy and cosmonauts Nikolai Tikhonov and Andrei Babkin, scheduled for launch April 9 aboard the Soyuz MS-16/62S spacecraft.
COMMERCIAL CREW LAUNCH DELAYS LEAVE STATION WITH REDUCED CREW
That will be the first of just two Soyuz missions in 2020, both flights carrying just one NASA astronaut each. The Russians scaled back the Soyuz flight rate anticipating the long-planned debut of new commercially developed crew ferry ships being built by SpaceX and Boeing.
But NASA’s commercial crew program has encountered multiple delays due to funding shortfalls and technical issues, and it’s not yet known when the first commercial crew ship will reach the station.
SpaceX is expected to be the first off the pad with a Crew Dragon capsule, carrying NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken, taking off sometime this spring.
Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner is expected to fly a piloted test flight of its own later this year. NASA is still evaluating the results of an unpiloted test flight last December in which a timing problem prevented a planned docking with the space station. It’s not yet known if a reflight will be required.
But getting one or both spacecraft off the ground as soon as possible is critical for NASA and the International Space Station. With just one NASA astronaut — Cassidy — aboard starting April 17 when Skripochka, Meir and Morgan depart, research will be extremely limited and non-emergency spacewalks will be on indefinite hold.
“By the plan, we have a short handover period with the previous Soyuz (crew),” Cassidy said. “So we’ll overlap there, but then we’re just the three of us until we undock (in October). With luck, we’ll have a commercial crew, whichever one it is, but we’ll have some visitors, and we’ll be excited for that.”
In any case, Cassidy, Tikhonov and Babkin are trained to handle the station on their own through the end of their flight in late October when a fresh three-person crew, including another NASA astronaut, is expected to arrive.
“We’re … ready operationally, mentally prepared, to just be the three of us on the space station, which will be a change in operations from what we’re used to today (with) six people,” Cassidy told reporters during a briefing last November.
“There’ll be less available crew hours (for science), because you still have to devote your baseline number of hours per week or whatever to keeping the thing running. So it’ll be (a) change in philosophy and how we manage crew time. But the goal is still the same, to maximize science hours and research, and we’ll do our best to do that.”