From the moment she first learned to surf along the Gulf Coast of Texas 6 years ago, NASA astronaut Christina Koch has spent much of her free time capitalizing on every bump of windswell near her home in Galveston. She’s also ventured abroad to places like New Zealand and Puerto Rico on wave-hunting missions. But in March of last year, Koch set aside her board and wetsuit, committing to a lengthy dry spell for the sake of an entirely different sort of adventure — a mission on the International Space Station that would see her spending 328 days in space, setting a new record for the longest single spaceflight ever completed by a woman in the process.
Back in 2013, Koch was selected by NASA to be an astronaut — not surprising considering her background in electrical engineering, space science instrument development and all-around bad-assery. She worked at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC) Laboratory for High Energy Astrophysics, spent a year doing research at the South Pole in Antarctica and even served as a Field Engineer at NOAA’s Global Monitoring Division Baseline Observatory in Utqiagvik, Alaska and then as Station Chief of the American Samoa Observatory. Then, on March 14, 2019 — to put an exclamation point on her already impressive resume — Koch stuffed herself inside a marshmallow-esque space suit, buckled herself inside a massive rocket that propelled her through the Earth’s atmosphere and checked into her new outer-space digs to spend 11 months contributing to the field of space exploration.
Once on board the ISS, Koch worked as a flight engineer, conducting more than 210 scientific investigations and advancing technology that will return astronauts to the Moon and prepare NASA for human exploration of Mars (!!!). When she wasn’t busy researching things like weightlessness, isolation, the stress of long-duration spaceflight and other things us earth-bound folk can hardly wrap our brains around, Koch spent what free time she had watching the 2019 WSl Championship Tour via webcast and taking aerial photographs of the world’s best surf breaks.
After returning to Earth on February 6th of this year, Koch has spent the majority of her time getting her surf legs back and re-acclimating to our planet’s gravity. To find out more about her nearly-year-long space adventure, and how looking at the coast from orbit changes your perspective on surfing, we gave Koch a call.
So what came first — your interest in space exploration or wave exploration?
Well, I’ve wanted to be an astronaut for as long as I can remember, but I also have been an ocean person for just as long. I often say that what triggered my love of space exploration were things that made me feel small, like the night sky and the ocean. I grew up in coastal North Carolina so I used to love going to the beach. My family would do boating trips and I loved being out on the ocean, being able to look out in every direction and seeing nothing but waves and the ocean. So I think they probably came hand in hand, but the actual surfing part came much later for me. I did a lot of ocean sports my whole life but I didn’t start surfing until the tender age of 35 when I moved to Galveston.
What did the path look like to becoming an astronaut at the International Space Station?
So many people grow up wanting to be an astronaut. For me, I just never grew out of that. Given that, I pursued my own passions and those things I was good at led me to be the type of person who could contribute as an astronaut. I wasn’t doing it just to get a ride up into space for my own reasons. I got a job at NASA as an electrical engineer right out of college, but 2 years later I left that job to do work at the South Pole in Antarctica. Growing up, I had pictures of the ocean and Antarctica and space on my wall. The Antarctic represented to me another frontier where I could explore and provide not only the technical challenges of a job but the physical and mental challenges of living in isolation in a harsh environment.
I don’t think I’ve ever said these words before, but what did a typical day look like for you in space?
You know, it was pretty similar to how days look here with people working from home in stay-at-home isolation with no commute [laughs]. We had 12-hour workdays that were scheduled down to the 5-minute increment. Our day was so regimented — we were constantly working on specific tasks that were laid out in advance on a very strict time frame. That included anything from the maintenance of the space station to the main purpose why we were there — which is doing science that can only be done in microgravity and also testing new technologies for going deeper into space exploration. We’re going back to the moon right now with a mission called Artemis and we’re going to take those technologies and go even further on to explore Mars. And, of course, our days included some of the regular stuff — exercise, cleaning, occasionally doing a spacewalk [when astronauts don their spacesuits and leave the space station] or doing experiments using the robotic arm. In the morning we could wake up and do a very technical science experiment and by the end of the day we’re working on fixing the toilet.
I imagine it took a while for your body to adjust to microgravity once you got up there — what are some surprising ways that microgravity has an effect on your body and your daily activities?
When many people get to microgravity, some common things people experience are motion sickness, back pain, and also headaches. I didn’t have those, but I did feel like my head was really full all the time, like the sensation you have when you’re doing a handstand. It’s also strange orienting in 3 dimensions at first when there is no real difference between the ceiling and the floor. We have equipment and stowage on all surfaces, so sometimes when working on the ceiling, about halfway through you might suddenly feel like you’re actually working on the floor and it takes a second to realize how you’re oriented. After a while, your brain starts to map out in all dimensions and the sensation of station “flipping” doesn’t happen as much. For me, sleeping was better in microgravity than on the ground because it was so comfortable and peaceful while floating. For eating, microgravity makes you feel full differently because the food doesn’t go to the bottom of your stomach, so most people don’t feel as hungry at first and have to keep track of calories to make themselves eat enough.
What were the spacewalks like? Those must have been wild experiences.
Spacewalking is one of the most exceptional experiences of my entire life. It’s completely unique. Even looking out the window of the space station and seeing all of Earth is nothing compared to being immersed in outer space, looking around in your environment and seeing nothing but the blackness of space or the Earth 250 miles below you.
Our spacewalks are highly orchestrated — every move is written down in a procedure and we’re actually walked through it by a person in mission control [Houston] talking to us. Also, everything you do is hard. The spacesuit is pressurized, and even though everything is weightless, they have inertia so you’re talking hundreds of pounds of inertia that you’re moving around. But despite the fact that it’s hard and requires a lot of focus and concentration, there’s still that moment where you get to look around and take it all in for a second and recognize where you are.
One of the things that struck me the most while on a spacewalk was looking down at the Earth at a place I recognized. My friend Jessica and I went to do the spacewalk together, and for different reasons, San Diego is a really special place to the both of us and we both were actually waiting together at the airlock for a piece of equipment as we flew over San Diego and we got to give a shout-out to our friends in the city. That was an amazing feeling.
Were you nervous at all? My palms are sweating just thinking about floating out in the middle of space.
You know, we are trained so well to react to anything that goes wrong in our systems, so I personally didn’t feel any sort of fear. I also think my experience in rock climbing helped me with any fear of heights.
But despite all my training, despite that I trusted the team I was working with and all that, I did have a gut reaction during my first space walk. We happened to be in the night path so you couldn’t see anything — the Earth wasn’t lit by the sun — so it was just complete blackness outside the space station. I was in the airlock with one of my crew members, who opened the hatch, and a few moments later, I looked down and I saw this gaping back hole where the hatch had been and for one second my heart raced and I knew I had to go out of that hatch. But after that, I calmed down and from then on it was smooth sailing. I think something else we’re trying to do as astronauts is to turn our fear into focus — and that’s something I actually use in surfing, too.
Speaking of surfing, you were taking aerial photos up there of famous waves around the world — mostly of ‘CT venues throughout the season — and posting them on Instagram and Twitter. Did you have that goal when you first left Earth?
I came up with the idea prior to my flight and I told some of the social media folks at NASA and they were excited about it. It turned out just by luck that surf spots were the perfect thing to take photos of from space. When the sun would glint off the swell you could literally see the swell direction coming in at these world-class, famous waves. I thought it would be really neat to show how the swell curls around the different landforms, which to me, is just about ocean education and knowledge and understanding the ocean as it was about following the Tour. It was so awesome to watch how the swell was different in different places during different times of the year. I have pictures of the North Shore during fall when not much was going on at all and then I have the same picture in January when it was going off. It was neat to see that play out.
I also liked taking surf shots of places I had been to myself. I haven’t been on a ton of surf trips, but seeing pictures of Raglan or Puerto Rico where I surfed was awesome. Knowing that the same waves I could see through my lens from 250 miles up, I had once ridden was really, really cool.
Were you able to scout any potentially undiscovered surf spots?
You know Kelly Slater asked me that too [Koch was interviewed by Slater while she was up at the ISS] and I have to say it is so difficult to even find the surf spots. It was a huge undertaking. I basically devoted all the free time in my mission to it. Not only did I have to find these places while we’re going by so quickly, the sun had to be glinting off that part of the earth in just the right spot to even show the swell. That being said, the whole coastline near Skeleton Bay in Namibia has a lot to be explored. That happened to be a place that was really easy to find geographically and I got a lot of pictures. So I’m definitely going to scour those pictures more to see if there’s something ripe in there I’ll be able to find.
How fast were you passing a coast while trying to take those photos?
Well the space station itself is traveling 17,500 miles per hour and that equates to flying from coast to coast in the US, for example, in maybe 5 to 6 minutes. Let’s say I’m trying to get Pipe and I’m trying to take the shot through a specific small window onboard the space station, the North Shore would come into view and out of view in the span of maybe 20 seconds and it would only be directly under us for about 5 seconds.
There were many times I set an alarm for 2 a.m. to go take a picture of Hawaii or a picture of J-Bay.
One of my favorite photos you took was the one you captured during the finals of the Pipe Masters and you gave a shoutout to Italo for his win. Were you able to watch the finals up there?
I was. I actually watched every event. It was something I looked forward to. I marked the days on my calendar. Depending on the time zones sometimes I could even watch live. Our exercise on the ISS is really regimented, but at the same time, it’s kind of our only opportunity to take a break from the day and be able to put something on a screen and just detach from what we’re doing out there. When you’re an astronaut you’re on film/video streaming all day to the mission control centers and people are watching your every move, so to just have a moment to detach and remember that you’re an individual and you have things that you love to do when you were back on Earth was really important. Also, just the inspirational aspect of watching these athletes…the first event [at Snapper] I saw Caroline Marks win and that was an incredible source of inspiration for me.
So you set the record — 328 days — for the longest continuous spaceflight by a woman. That must’ve been a really proud moment for you.
You know, I probably wouldn’t have even known about it if people didn’t tell me about it because to me it wasn’t necessarily about the number of days as much as it was what you brought each day. That being said, and something we’re all experiencing right now in an isolation world, there are opportunities to develop strategies to bring your best every single day when you’ve been doing the same thing for many, many days. But yeah, there were challenges to overcome that definitely made me feel proud of it, but the thing I feel most proud of is bringing my best, working with a team and hopefully giving back to those teams.
All that said, milestones are so important. I love the fact that talking about it helps people learn about where we are in space exploration and what new missions are happening right now. And, of course, I feel so privileged to have been at the right place at the right time, with so many people paving the way for me to be a woman who can live onboard the space station for 11 months. With that, I’m just honored to maybe provide inspiration for future space explorers out there. I have to say, my number 1 goal is for that record to be succeeded as soon as possible. I want to keep pushing the boundaries with space exploration and seeing the next people in line doing just that.
When you came back to Earth, did you experience an adjustment getting used to gravity again? I know being in microgravity for an extended period of time can affect your balance and strength.
Oh my gosh, it was a huge adjustment. For the first 45 days back I was in a regimented reintegration and reconditioning program with a personal trainer and an expert who helps people coming back from microgravity get back in shape. My trainer knew I love surfing, so we were doing pop up drills where I would lay down on a mat and she would blow a whistle and I would pop up like I was on a board. Believe it or not, that kind of thing is one of the hardest things to do when you get back. Our exercise regiment is so good up there that I actually didn’t lose much strength. I jokingly say that I could do more pull-ups when I got back from space than when I left, but I couldn’t walk in a straight line. Basically it feels like you have a bowling ball attached to your head. Every time you move it, you kind of have a sense of motion sickness or dizziness because your vestibular system functions completely differently in microgravity — so your brain has to learn to take in all those sensory inputs with gravity again. I would close my eyes and feel immediately dizzy.
When I went surfing for the first time after being back for about 2 months, my goal was just to put on my wetsuit. Just the idea of bending over and having to pull those legs on and all the maneuvering it would take to get my arms in and everything — that sounded like a monumental effort. Turns out, I was able to put on my wetsuit and I even paddled out and caught a couple little Galveston waves that day, so that was an awesome reintroduction.
Has your experience at the ISS — and being able to see Earth from that perspective — changed or enhanced your relationship with surfing and the ocean in any way?
Definitely. I think my biggest take away is just that the ocean and its coastlines are a way bigger part of the planet than I think I realized. We all learn that oceans make up 70 percent of the earth’s surface, but to actually see it day in and day out — and to see how it interacts with the earth’s atmosphere and the environmental systems — makes you realize what a huge and important part of our ecosystem it is. My time at the ISS definitely made me more of an environmentalist than I had been before and it made me appreciate the ocean as a living, breathing part of our planet. We have to take care of it for sure.