Astronaut returns to Earth after record mission

A Soyuz MS-13 space capsule carrying International Space Station (ISS) crew members Christina Koch, Luca Parmitano and Alexander Skvortsov, lands in Zhezkazgan, Kazakhstan, February 6, 2020. Sergei Ilnitsky/Pool via REUTERS

U.S. astronaut Christina Koch, who led the first all-female spacewalk in 2019, landed in Kazakhstan on Thursday after a record stay on the International Space Station, ending a 328-day mission expected to yield new insights into deep-space travel.

The Soyuz MS-13 capsule touched down on the Kazakh desert steppe at 4:12 am ET carrying Koch, 41, European astronaut Luca Parmitano and Russian cosmonaut Alexander Skvortsov.

They will be flown by search and recovery teams to the Karaganda region to begin their journey home.

“I’m just so overwhelmed and happy right now,” Koch said, sitting in a chair wrapped in blankets as she waited to be carried into a medical tent to restore her balance in gravity.

Koch’s mission broke the record for the longest stay in space by a woman, previously held by NASA’s Peggy Whitson.

She also achieved a gender milestone in a spacewalk with fellow NASA astronaut Jessica Meir last October that marked the first time two women stepped out of the space station at the same time.

NASA’s first attempt at an all-female spacewalk in March 2019 was called off https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-women-space/nasa-cancels-first-all-women-spacewalk-due-to-lack-of-small-spacesuits-idUSKCN1R71CE due to a lack of a spacesuit in the right size, igniting a gender-equity debate in the space community.

Astronauts on the space station, whose 20th anniversary in low-Earth orbit comes later this year, have made 227 maintenance spacewalks, nearly two dozen of which included women astronauts, according to NASA. Koch and Meir conducted two more spacewalks together in January.

NASA said Koch’s lengthy mission will provide researchers with much-needed data on how weightlessness and space radiation affect the female body on long spaceflights. 

That science, to be studied in the coming months, could prove useful for the U.S. space agency’s aim of building a permanent space station on the moon within the next decade.

U.S. astronaut Scott Kelly’s 340 days in orbit starting in 2015 demonstrated that long-term spaceflight causes human health effects such as thickening of the carotid artery and retina, changes in gene expression and slight cognitive impairment for men.

Launched into orbit last March, Koch’s mission was extended in April from its original span of six months to nearly a year after she was already aboard the station.