Sunday, May 26, 2024

N.C. State grad joins space race

­By Danielle Herman

Christina Hammock Koch is just months from her first mission to space, but she’s no stranger to remote places. Growing up in Jacksonville, she spent time sailing with her dad, and the vastness of the ocean and sky sparked her desire to explore the farthest-flung places, including Antarctica, American Samoa and now, outer space. It was her childhood dream to become an astronaut.

After nearly six years of training, Koch is expected to launch next April for the International Space Station. She’ll be a flight engineer for Expedition 59/60 and help maintain the 250 experiments occurring on board.

“A lot of the experiments that go on board the space station are aimed at figuring out what all we need to know and be prepared for before we send astronauts to more distant locations, like the moon and ultimately Mars,” says NASA spokeswoman Brandi Dean.

Koch also will be the experiment in some cases, as scientists analyze how her time in space affects her bones, muscles and circulation. During her training, Koch has prepared herself physically for space, operated a T-38 jet, learned Russian and practiced spacewalks.

A 1997 graduate of the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics, Koch completed two undergraduate degrees and a master’s in electrical engineering at N.C. State University. While a student, she graduated from the NASA Academy program at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, then continued at the agency for two years as an electrical engineer.

But Koch didn’t want to follow a checklist to become an astronaut. She jumped on an opportunity to work for the United States Antarctic Program, spending three-and-a-half years traveling in the Arctic and Antarctic regions. During a winter at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, she endured minus 111-degree temperatures.

Koch declined requests for an interview, but in a NASA video she said living in Antarctica was challenging mentally and physically.

In between trips to the Earth’s poles, Koch had a stint as an electrical engineer at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, helping create instruments that assist with gathering data in space. She later worked for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Alaska, where she decided she was ready for the astronaut program.

“What actually inspired me to make the move to actually do the application was just reflecting on my career and realizing that through following my own personal dreams, I had accumulated a set of skills that I thought could really be useful in contributing to human space flight,” Koch said in the video.

Expeditions usually last about six months, meaning Koch is slated to return to Earth in October 2019.

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