Women of STEM

US astronaut Christina Koch has returned to Earth having shattered the spaceflight record for female astronauts by spending almost a year aboard the International Space Station.

Ms Koch of NASA touched down in the Kazakh steppes with colleagues Luca Parmitano of the European Space Agency and Alexander Skvortsov of the Russian space agency after 328 days in space.

Ms Koch was shown seated and smiling broadly after being extracted from the Soyuz descent module in the Roscosmos space agency’s video footage from the landing site.

“I am so overwhelmed and happy right now,” she said.

The 41-year-old Michigan-born engineer by training surpassed the previous record set for a single spaceflight by a woman – 289 days, held by NASA veteran Peggy Whitson – on 28 December 2019.

Ms Koch had already made history by that point after she became one half of the first-ever all-woman spacewalk along with NASA counterpart Jessica Meir in October.

She told NBC on Tuesday that she would “miss microgravity” as she answered questions from journalists ahead of her three-and-a-half hour journey back to Earth.

“It’s really fun to be in a place where you can just bounce around between the ceiling and the floor whenever you want,” she said, smiling as she twisted her body around the ISS.

Ms Koch called three-time flyer Whitson “a heroine of mine” and a “mentor” in the space programme after she surpassed the 59-year-old’s record.

She also spoke of her desire to “inspire the next generation of explorers”.

The first woman in space was Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova whose spaceflight in 1963 is still the only solo mission carried out by a woman.

But the cosmonauts Russia has sent to the ISS since expeditions began in 2000 have all been men with the exception of Yelena Serova’s launch in 2014.

Both Ms Tereshkova and Ms Serova are now MPs in the Russian parliament, where they represent the ruling United Russia party.

Unlike Ms Koch, whose stay aboard the ISS was extended, Mr Parmitano and Mr Skvortsov are rounding off regular six-month missions.

Mr Parmitano handed over command of the ISS to Roscosmos’ Oleg Skripochka on Tuesday.

The 43-year-old Italian posted regular shots of the Earth while aboard, highlighting the plight of the Amazon rainforest and poetically describing the Alps as “like a spinal column, never bending to time”.

Four male cosmonauts have spent a year or longer in space as part of a single mission with Valery Polyakov’s 437 days the overall record.

Scott Kelly holds the record for a NASA astronaut, posting 340 days at the ISS before he returned home in 2016.

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