DAVID RICE: Record-setting astronaut Koch says women 'can do absolutely anything they want'

Posted December 5, 2020 5:00 a.m. EST

NASA astronaut Christina Koch set the record for longest continuous stay in space by a women on Saturday (Image courtesy: NCSU Alumni Association)

EDITOR'S NOTE: David Rice, executive director of Higher Ed Works, interviewed record-setting astronaut Christine Koch prior to her delivery of Friday's N.C. State University commencement address.

Before she spent 328 days aboard – and sometimes outside – the International Space Station, Christina Koch spent five years at North Carolina State University.

And as she prepared to deliver a commencement address to 9,100 N.C. State graduates in a virtual ceremony Friday evening, Koch (pronounced ‘Cook’) says N.C. State was about much more than the substantial physics and electrical engineering classes she took there.

In a phys-ed class, she also discovered rock climbing. The physical positioning, physics, focus and teamwork involved all helped prepare her to be an astronaut, Koch said.

“We talked more about rock climbing in my astronaut interview than we ever did about engineering,” she said.

Koch grew up in Jacksonville and went to the N.C. School of Science and Mathematics in Durham. At first, she said, she felt intimidated by the experiences of some of her brilliant classmates from larger cities. But for the first time, a math teacher at NCSSM told her she had special skills, and she began to gather confidence.

Now she’s had experiences very few human beings can match.

She earned a bachelor’s degree in Electrical Engineering at NC State in 2001, then added a bachelor’s in Physics and a master’s in Electrical Engineering in 2002. She later worked in (very!) remote field engineering in such diverse places as American Samoa, Greenland and Antarctica. She was selected as an astronaut in 2013 and was assigned to a long-duration mission that left Kazakhstan in March 2019.

When she returned to Earth on Feb. 6, Koch had set a record for the longest spaceflight by a woman, 328 days. She and fellow astronaut Jessica Meir also participated in the first all-woman spacewalk.

Asked about her status as a role model for young girls and women in science, she replied, “I really just hope that it’s a model that I can be for them that my role models were for me,” mentioning astronaut Sally Ride and her chemistry teachers among them.

“I’d like them to take away that they can do absolutely anything they want to.”

Discussing the shortage of women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) fields, Koch said role models and mentors definitely help.

“It does take a concerted thought that we devote to that,” she said.

“STEM is about teamwork and it's about making the world a better place,” she said. Beyond the lab settings many picture when they think of science, “It’s about working with each other to contribute to the world.”

Asked about experiences she had in space that she couldn’t have anywhere else, she initially replied, “I couldn’t have eaten floating M&Ms anywhere else.”

But then she grew more serious and talked about the perspective developed while looking down on the Earth as she orbited completely around it in an hour-and-a-half.

"It really does give you perspective that we are more alike than we are different, and that we need to take care of the planet we all share,” she said.

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