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Record-breaking US astronaut set to return to Earth

Christopher Rickleton

Agence France-Presse

Almaty, Kazakhstan  /  Thu, February 6, 2020  /  10:02 pm
Record-breaking US astronaut set to return to Earth

This NASA photo released on February 4, 20202 shows NASA astronaut Christina Koch during a spacewalk on January 15, 2020. (Handout/NASA/AFP/File)

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

Koch of NASA is expected to touch down in the Kazakh steppes with colleagues Luca Parmitano of the European Space Agency and Alexander Skvortsov of the Russian space agency at 9:12 GMT after 328 days in space. 

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 December 28, 2019.  

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. 

Koch 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.

Read also: US makes history with first all-female spacewalk

'Make space for women'

Koch called three-time flyer Whitson "a heroine of mine" and a "mentor" in the space program after she surpassed the 59-year-old's record. 

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

Koch's return comes after an advert produced by the skincare brand Olay ran during an intermission in the American football Super Bowl with a call to "make space for women". 

The advert featured NASA astronaut Nicole Stott and saw the company promise to donate up to $500,000 to the nonprofit Women Who Code, which works with young women seeking careers in tech and scientific fields.  

This year's Super Bowl was watched by over 100 million people while advert space costs more than $5 million for a 30-second commercial.  

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

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

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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