ISS Just-in-Time Record Holder talks about student science in space

Christina Koch, the astronaut who spent 328 days in space as a NASA record holder, continues her mission to inspire the next generation of explorers.

In addition to being the woman with the longest time in space travel, Koch also holds the title for the second longest time in space, behind her NASA colleague Scott Kelly, who was 340 days from Earth.

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While aboard the International Space Station (ISS), Koch was involved in a variety of scientific investigations, including some student-led experiments.

For Koch, in addition to the science that astronauts bring to Earth, exploration and discovery, STEM education and inspiration is very important and has a very positive impact. “I think that’s one of the biggest reasons why it’s so important to have a human spaceflight program,” Koch said in an interview with Space.

Christina Koch, a NASA astronaut, works on a gene experiment in Space-6 on the International Space Station. Photo: NASA

Boeing-sponsored program brings student science to the International Space Station

She is a strong advocate for inspiring the next generation of scientists and explorers, and as such has been involved in some significant STEM activities outside of space. One of these activities was a series of experiments designed by students in an American research program called Genes in Space.

Sponsored by Boeing, the program is a competition targeting students in grades 7-12 (US) and challenging them to design an experiment using DNA to solve a real problem in spaceflight. The winning student’s experiment is then transferred to the space station, where it is performed by the crew on board.

“Being in space was amazing. I was on the International Space Station for 11 months, our main mission was science, and I was very excited to help with the research,” Koch said. “I’ve had some experiences that pop into my mind as memorable — for a number of reasons, and Genes in Space is definitely one of them.”

Koch participated in the Genes in Space-6 experiment, which was the first to use CRISPR technology in space, with a new gene-editing tool. As part of the experiment, yeast DNA was cut on both threads, causing significant damage. The researchers then looked at how the yeast repaired itself.

One disadvantage of space is that space radiation can damage human DNA. On Earth, the body can repair itself by adding or deleting DNA bases, or even putting the piece back together without changing it. However, this has not been studied in microgravity yet.

Koch shared that she was really excited to work on this experiment because she was “kind of a CRISPR geek” on her spaceflight. “This particular scientific discovery was really exciting, so I looked for a lot of additional information about it,” she said. “I learned about the students who designed it, and I learned about the science itself because I kind of wanted to keep that in mind as I went through the steps, doing the actual lab work on the bench.”

While on the International Space Station, astronauts typically work on hundreds of experiments, so according to Koch, they don’t have many opportunities to learn about any experiment much earlier. “We really try to be good at figuring something out quickly and succeed in the amount of time we have,” she said. “So that scientists can get as much knowledge as possible.”

According to Koch, during more practical experiments, such as Genes in Space 6, astronauts work with researchers on Earth using an electron dot. “One of the investigators talks to you in a headset the entire time you are doing the experiment and guides you through the experiment,” she said. “They want to get feedback from you in real time, so there was a camera installed so they could see what I was doing,” he explained.

For Koch, it was like working with a partner in a lab. “Only this time, we are separated by 400 kilometers from space,” the astronaut said.

Space offers different conditions for experiments designed on Earth

She also explained that one of the most fun things about working in microgravity is that fluids and sorbents don’t always work as well as they do on Earth, so the team had to solve some unexpected problems.

One of the other great STEM-related activities I was involved in while living and working in space was playing with ‘limo’, a Nickelodeon slime launched in 2020 as part of a project that aims to attract kids of all people interested in STEM.

NASA astronaut Christina Koch and the Nickelodeon slime experiment on the International Space Station. Photo: NASA

“We had a lot of fun with it, so I hope the kids do, too,” she said. “The benefits of space activities come in many different forms — some purely scientific, perhaps technical, others inspiring, so it is important that we cover the entire spectrum to maximize the good we do,” Koch says.

She added that the slime was used to help children gain more knowledge not only about human spaceflight but also about how things work in microgravity.

One of the amazing things about slime, for example, is how it behaves completely differently than water in space. “When you work with water in space, you have to be very careful that the surface tension doesn’t change when it comes into contact with something, because water doesn’t like to explode and explode,” Koch said. “On the other hand, gooey likes to look like a bubble, and you can even hit it, and that was very fun.” For Koch, both materials have their own applications and she hopes the kids will have just as much fun as you do.

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‘Genes in Space’ spur passion for science

Christophe Mesquita is one of the students involved in Genes in Space. It’s the current competition winner and its experiment, Genes in Space-8, is on the International Space Station now.

Mesquita said winning the competition was a surreal experience. “I see the space station flying over my head at night, and it seems to be a distant star, and the fact that my job is on the International Space Station drives me crazy,” said the student. “I think it’s a testament to how science has become available.”

For him, the Genes in Space program, and especially his experiment, are part of a larger trend in space that is making space science and concepts in general more accessible to the public. “It makes me so excited.”

Mesquita learned about the competition from one of the professors at his school, and while he was looking for space-related opportunities, he decided to see if aeronautical engineering was right for him. “This competition came at a very formative time for me,” he said. “It was my freshman year in high school, and that was when I was thinking about applying to college and then what I was going to look for in college.”

Thanks to the help and guidance she received during the competition, Misquitta was accepted into the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) as an aerospace engineering student. “I hope to study, preferably, the space aspect,” he added. “The experience helped solidify my graduation.”

According to Katie Martin, leader of the Genes in Space program, each student is matched with a teacher, who is a real scientist, and they spend a lot of time refining proposals. “Even if they don’t win the competition, this is an invaluable experience for the students,” Martin said.

“Our only winner is selected by a panel of judges, and we are looking for scholarly merit and a student who can represent the competition as a whole and be a role model for other students considering participating in science and engineering as well as in our competition,” Martin explained. “Christophe is a good example of this.”

NASA astronaut Megan MacArthur performed the Misquitta experiment on the International Space Station. He said he hadn’t had any direct interaction with her while she was in space, but he was able to track the experiment’s progress through ISS National Laboratory staff.

According to Koch, astronauts usually communicate directly with mentors, so she didn’t have direct interaction with the students who planned the experiment she worked on, but she revealed she was able to talk to them after she returned to Earth.

Contact remains. “It was mostly virtual, but we interacted a lot with students, of different age groups, whether in classroom situations or award ceremonies, and a lot of different engagements, so for me, that is one of the best things about this business and about the opportunity.”

The recorder is in Artemis

Koch is among eighteen astronauts nominated for the Artemis program, which plans to land the first woman and next man on the Moon before the end of this decade, as well as the first black person.

There’s a lot to do before distributing the mission tasks, but Koch is really excited about what Artemis means to all of humanity. “For me, what the mission really stands for is that NASA is committed to responding to humanity’s call for exploration,” she said. “We are an example of how successful you are when you receive contributions from all over the world, from planet Earth and humanity. I am very proud to be a part of it.”

Koch participated in the first all-female space walk in history, along with NASA astronaut Jessica Meir. To ensure that the agency and the United States remain at the forefront of innovation, Koch says it is important to use the space station to help inspire and encourage young people to pursue STEM-related fields.

For Koch, being in space was not just an opportunity to inspire others, it was also a dream come true. “I think, in general, flying in space is a dream job: you get to get to a place where you have this amazing perspective on Earth and you can take everyone’s dreams with you in space. You hope to inspire people. Your day in and day out is science,” the astronaut said. and maintenance.” “I can’t imagine a better job than this.”

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