NASA astronaut Christina Koch's historic tour aboard the International Space Station came to a triumphant end Thursday morning, when the spacecraft carrying her and two colleagues touched down on a snowy patch of Earth at 4:12 a.m. Eastern time.
Having set the record for the longest single spaceflight by a woman at 328 days, Koch was all smiles and thumbs up as she was hoisted from the spacecraft, and NASA celebrated her feat as another in a string of recent achievements by female astronauts.
"She definitely looks glad to be home," NASA's Brandi Dean said on a live broadcast of the return.
But she wasn't home, at least not all the way. Koch, along with Luca Parmitano of the European Space Agency and Alexander Skvortsov of Russia, had landed in a remote and frozen desert in the middle of Kazakhstan, some 7,000 miles from Houston, the headquarters of America's human space program and where Koch and most of the U.S. astronaut corps live.
For years, America's astronauts have been taking off and landing from that barren landscape in Kazakhstan, not far from the site of an infamous Soviet-era Gulag labor camp and remote enough that locals show up, as they did Thursday, on horseback to see a charred thimble-shaped Soyuz spacecraft implanted in the ground, like a surreal relic of some science fiction flick.
Since the Space Shuttle fleet was retired in 2011, NASA has paid Russia for rides to the International Space Station, at more than $80 million a seat. The astronauts launch on Russian rockets from the Baikonur Cosmodrome, and landing in the Soyuz spacecraft can feel like "a car accident that ended in multiple rollovers," as former astronaut Scott Kelly wrote in his memoir "Endurance."
But NASA hopes soon to return human spaceflight to American soil and celebrate the next chapter of exploration from Florida's Cape Canaveral, the birthplace of the American Space Age. Both Boeing and SpaceX are under contract from NASA to develop spacecraft to fly the space agency's astronauts, and NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said in a phone interview Thursday that the first flight with astronauts on board is only "months away."
"It is true that landing in Kazakhstan is not the most convenient for American astronauts," he said. "But it is also true that we will continue to keep the partnership even after we're launching from American soil."
Koch's long stay in space broke a record set in 2017 by Peggy Whitson, who spent 288 days in space on a single mission, and came within two weeks of the record for a single spaceflight by an American, 340 days, set by Kelly in 2016. Whitson still holds the record for the total days in space by any NASA astronaut, at 665.
Bridenstine said there had been some consideration of extending Koch's mission so that it would break Kelly's record. But Bridenstine said he deferred to the operators of the space station, who decided "it was in the best interest of the program to follow this schedule and optimize use of the space station. ... We love breaking records, but we don't have to break records for the sake of breaking records."
Koch, a scientist from North Carolina, joined the astronaut corps in 2013, the first class in NASA's history that had as many women as men. Her time in space came at an important moment for NASA, which is going to great lengths to highlight women's contributions to exploration.
Under a program dubbed Artemis for the twin sister of Apollo, the space agency is preparing to send "the next man and the first woman" to the moon by as early as 2024, as Bridenstine frequently says.
In October, Koch and Jessica Meir performed the first all-female spacewalk when they stepped outside the space station to repair a faulty battery charger. In all, Koch performed six spacewalks, spending a total of 42 hours and 15 minutes outside the stations.
Whitson, who retired from the agency in 2018, said she was pleased to see her single-spaceflight record fall. "I am always happy that we at NASA are breaking records," she said.