The First Woman to go to the Moon

For NASA astronaut Christina Koch, smashing gender stereotypes beyond the atmosphere (in spacesuits two sizes two big) is all part of the gig.

When it comes to spaces women experience differently to men, one may assume actual space would transcend the limitations of gender stereotypes.

But for astronaut Christina Koch, who next year will become the first woman to go to "deep space", the areas of discrimination that we hear about in sport and other workplaces rings true even beyond the atmosphere. 

One domain where this plays out is spacewalking, which is when astronauts step outside of their spacecraft and rely solely on their spacesuits for breathable air. This is a feat achieved by 259 people since it was first done in 1965, but of these spacewalkers only 16 have been women. One of those women is Christina. 

Christina was drawn to space as a child. Growing up on the coast of North Carolina she describes a fascination that for most people dwindles as reality sets in and we get older. “I loved things that made me feel small.” Christina says. “I loved things that gave me this ability or opportunity to ponder the size of the universe and where we were in it." 

“I followed a path of things I was passionate about and that were meaningful to me with the idea that if that turned me into someone who can contribute as an astronaut in human spaceflight, that would be awesome,” she says. 

So what is the path to becoming an astronaut? It’s a career that from here in Australia doesn’t even feel real. Christina’s journey was a little unconventional - unlike her peers at university where she studied physics and electrical engineering, Christina didn’t undertake summer internships every year. Instead, she spent her time off travelling before finally doing an internship at NASA in the twilight of her studies. From here, she joined the space program as an engineer. 

It didn’t last long - after two years Christina traded it for a posting in Antarctica to undertake field science and started dual career paths of working both normal engineering jobs at home and researching in far off places. This was until, from the northernmost tip of Alaska, Christina hit submit on an application to become an astronaut. 

For the first two years of life as an astronaut at NASA, you’re what’s called an astronaut candidate. “I call this five new careers in a two year period,” Christina says, “because you have to learn how to become a pilot, you have to learn how to operate the robotic arm of the space station, all of the science and engineering on board the space station, you have to learn how to spacewalk and you have to learn how to speak Russian." 

Those that successfully run through all of these gauntlets start then you go into your ground job contributing phase of your career and this is also when you wait for your first flight assignment,” Christina says. 

For Christina, that assignment came in 2019 when she headed to the International Space Station for an 11 month mission. Christina’s cohort of astronauts was the first that started to normalise women spacewalking. Following the first woman to go to space, Soviet Union astronaut Valentina Tereshkova in 1963, women were trained and qualified by NASA but not actually allowed to finish the spaceflight program and go to space. It wasn’t until the late 1970s that NASA allowed women to complete its spaceflight program and in 1983 NASA sent the first American woman, Sally Ride, to space. 

Until Christina’s class of 2013, stereotypes about the physical limitations of women have been baked into the power structures of NASA, subsequently limiting women’s access to spacewalking. Ideas about women not having the upper body strength required to handle the inertia of walking in a 140kg spacesuit have been so extensive that NASA’s fleet of spacesuits is yet to include small sizes to fit women. But by Christina’s class, the expectation that everyone in the class would spacewalk was set and NASA ushered in a new, more inclusive era of spaceflight. 

“The metabolic load of even doing our spacewalk practice here on Earth, which we do in a giant pool with a mock-up of the space station, is the metabolic equivalent of running a marathon with your upper body.” Christina says.  

“You're moving around all this mass and it's also pressurised, so it's resisting every movement that you make - every time you grab something, every time you move your arm, every time you reposition your body you're having to put in a tremendous amount of energy and then couple that with the mental load of being in a suit for up to 12 hours, it's just an extremely physically demanding endeavour."  

“Of course the stereotype was that if you just don't inherently have upper body strength, you're just not going to be capable of doing that,” she says. 

This is made even more difficult with an ill-fitting spacesuit, with Christina having completed her spacewalks in a spacesuit two sizes too big. The gear isn't designed for smaller bodied folks, who tend to be women, and even more problematically, there's evidence suggesting that wearing spacesuits that are too big disadvantages the wearer in terms of time.

“Just like we saw in trades like firefighting, where it turns out that if your gear is the appropriate size and if you're actually given techniques as opposed to just having to figure something out through brute force, women can actually achieve the same level of performance [as men]." 

“We're doing things for the first time, so developing these smaller spacesuits takes a while, but for the next generation of spacesuits, they are mandated to have a full size range.” Christina says. 

Christina’s next mission is Artemis II, which is scheduled for 2025 and won’t land on the moon but will slingshot her and her crew around it. The mission will make Christina the first woman to go to the moon and to what is classified as "deep space".

“I really wish for a second woman on the mission so no one would keep calling me the first woman going to the moon,” Christina laughs. 

“Oftentimes that idea of being a first can overshadow what I think is really important, but at the same time, I recognise that milestones and firsts are important and inspiring to people so I do try to not shy away from it as much as I might want to. 

“I make sure that I am giving it the meaning that it has for the people that feel represented by my presence on the mission and the historical aspects of it are just incredible.

“I was inspired by the first female astronauts, the first women who worked in technical fields and the first Antarctic women explorers, as much as I was the Civil Rights leaders and people who did things that were incredibly brave and scary, and as much as I was in my own family - my grandmother who ran a farm and taught me about hard work. I think that it's an incredible responsibility and one that I definitely don't take lightly.” Christina says. 

Fifty-six years after the giant leap for mankind was made, Christina will finally take our giant leap for womankind.