US astronaut returns to Earth after longest mission by woman
Almaty (Kazakhstan), Feb 6 : NASA’s Christina Koch returned to Earth safely on Thursday after shattering the spaceflight record for female astronauts with a stay of almost 11 months aboard the International Space Station.
Koch touched down at 0912 GMT on the Kazakh steppe after 328 days in space, along with Luca Parmitano of the European Space Agency and Alexander Skvortsov of the Russian space agency.
Koch was shown seated and smiling broadly after being extracted from the Soyuz descent module in the Roscosmos space agency’s video footage from the landing site.
“I am so overwhelmed and happy right now,” said Koch, who blasted off on March 14 last year.
Parmitano pumped his fists in the air after being lifted into his chair while Skvortsov was shown eating an apple.
Local Kazakhs on horseback were among those to witness the capsule landing in the snow-covered steppe as support crews gathered around the three astronauts, NASA commentator Rob Navias said.
“I’ve never seen this,” Navias exclaimed, reporting that the men stopped to chat with engineering personnel.
Koch, a 41-year-old Michigan-born engineer, on December 28 last year beat the previous record for a single spaceflight by a woman of 289 days, set by NASA veteran Peggy Whitson in 2016-17.
Koch called three-time flyer Whitson, now 60, “a heroine of mine” and a “mentor” in the space programme after she surpassed the record.
She also spoke of her desire to “inspire the next generation of explorers”.
Koch also made history as one half of the first-ever all-woman spacewalk along with NASA counterpart Jessica Meir — her classmate from NASA training — in October last year.
The spacewalk was initially postponed because the space station did not have two suits of the right size for women, leading to allegations of sexism.
Ahead of the three-and-a-half hour journey back to Earth, Koch told NBC on Tuesday that she would “miss microgravity”.
“It’s really fun to be in a place where you can just bounce around between the ceiling and the floor whenever you want,” she said, smiling as she twisted her body around the ISS.
She will now head to NASA headquarters in Houston, via the Kazakh city of Karaganda and Cologne in Germany, where she will undergo medical testing.
Koch’s medical data will be especially valuable to NASA scientists as the agency draws up plans for a long-duration manned mission to Mars.
Koch’s return comes after an advert for a skincare brand ran during an intermission in the American football Super Bowl with a call to “make space for women”.