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Wednesday, December 02, 2020

Explained: Why Christina Koch’s longest spaceflight by a woman matters

The previous longest single spaceflight by any woman was 289 days by Peggy Whitson, also an American, who set that record in 2017.

By: Express News Service | New Delhi | Updated: February 7, 2020 12:18:46 pm
A search and rescue team helps NASA astronaut Christina Koch out of the Soyuz MS-13 space capsule carrying her and International Space Station (ISS) crew members Luca Parmitano and Alexander Skvortsov, after landing in Zhezkazgan, Kazakhstan, February 6, 2020. (Sergei Ilnitsky/Pool via Reuters)

On Thursday, NASA astronaut Christina Koch returned to Earth from the International Space Station, where she set the record for the longest single spaceflight in history by a woman. Koch arrived along with Soyuz Commander Alexander Skvortsov of Roscosmos and Luca Parmitano of European Space Agency.

The records, in context

Koch launched on March 14, 2019 and completed 328 days in space. The previous longest single spaceflight by any woman was 289 days by Peggy Whitson, also an American, who set that record in 2017. Among Americans across genders, just Scott Kelly (340 days) is ahead of Koch. The world record across genders is 438 days by Valery Polyakov of Russia.

Additionally, Koch is also seventh on the list of American astronauts in terms of cumulative time in space across one or more spaceflights. Whitson holds the American record for the longest cumulative time in space for any astronaut, at 665 days, which is also the world record for women. Across genders, the world record holder is a Russian astronaut, Gennady Padalka at 879 days. Among Americans, those ahead of Koch are Whitson, Jeff Williams (534 days), Scott Kelly (520), Mike Fincke (382), Mike Foale (374) and Don Pettit (370).

Koch completed 5,248 orbits of the Earth and a journey of 220 million km, the equivalent of almost 300 trips to the Moon and back. She conducted six spacewalks during 11 months on orbit, including the first three all-woman spacewalks (the historic first being with Jessica Meir), spending 42 hours and 15 minutes outside the station. She witnessed the arrival of a dozen visiting spacecraft and the departure of another dozen.

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Lessons from her flight

Koch’s extended mission will provide researchers the opportunity to observe effects of long-duration spaceflight on a woman as the agency plans to return humans to the Moon under the Artemis program and prepare for human exploration of Mars.

Her work included participation in a number of studies to support those future exploration missions, including research into how the human body adjusts to weightlessness, isolation, radiation and the stress of long-duration spaceflight.

One particular research project Koch participated in is the Vertebral Strength investigation, which better defines the extent of spaceflight-induced bone and muscle degradation of the spine, and the associated risk for broken vertebrae. This is expected to provide insight into the development of future countermeasures, such as preventative medicine or exercise. These results also could provide recommendations for limiting the amount of force astronauts are subjected to during launch.

Other experiments included work on the Microgravity Crystals investigation, which crystallises a membrane protein that is integral to tumour growth and cancer survival. Results may support the development of cancer treatments that target the protein more effectively and with fewer side effects.

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