A Different High – Christina Koch and Space
There are many strings to Christina Koch’s bow: scientist, flight engineer, inventor, astronaut, and surfer. From March 14 2019 to February 6 2020, Christina spent 328 days aboard the International Space Station as a member of three consecutive missions, the second-longest time ever spent in space. The numbers are mindblowing 5,248 orbits of the earth – a lap every 90 minutes, and a total of 139 million miles covered. She performed six spacewalks, for a total of 42 hours outside the hatch. And of particular interest to Swellnet’s readers, no-one has ever had the opportunity to check so much surf.
Christina spoke with Gra Murdoch.
Christina Koch, 42, Scientist, Engineer, Astronaut, and Surfer
From a surfing point of view, growing up in coastal North Carolina, I totally blew it! My family went to the beach all the time and I was really into the water, but surfing just didn’t register on the southern part of that coast. And though I really fell in love with sailing, I still feel like I missed out on an opportunity, growing up.
I only got into surfing after I moved to Houston, Texas, to take the job as an astronaut. I was a big outdoors person: rock climbing, hiking, skiing, floating rivers, and when I moved to Houston, there weren't any mountains here. I’d been living in Montana and the Rocky Mountains so I was searching for something to connect me with some outdoor adventure. Galveston, Texas, isn’t exactly known for its good surf, but it's where I learned and fell in love with surfing.
Coming to surfing late, I’ll never take it for granted. I recognise that it's a hard sport to be picking up at the tender age of 35. It didn’t necessarily come easily, and it’s not like riding a bike for me if I take a break from it. So I have an appreciation and respect for it on a lot of levels that’s heightened by being a latecomer.
I used to call myself a 'science gypsy'. I first worked in Antarctica at the South Pole for a year which included a winter-over season. And then I was fortunate to work in another Antarctic base for two seasons, on the coastal peninsula, which was awesome – there were a lot of recreational opportunities, a lot of marine wildlife, and we could even rock climb.
Then I started working in the Arctic. I worked two winters at the summit of the Greenland ice cap, and then had the chance to work in Barrow, Alaska, about 500 miles north of the Arctic circle. That was the first place I worked in that was actually in a town, more a settlement, and the cultural aspects that came along with that was really cool.
I added it up and in total I’d spent three-and-a-half years of my life either in Antarctica or above the Arctic Circle. Then I got a chance to work in American Samoa at a science base, but obviously in a very different climate. I worked there for about 10 months as well.
Interviewer’s note: At this stage, your interviewer decides inexplicably to crack wise, and says “Yes, you were Station Chief at the NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) bureau – So you’re kind of cutting a Carrie Mathieson figure.” There’s silence on the line as my gag falls flat – I panic and explain the ‘Homeland’ TV series ‘Station Chief’ reference, Christina graciously chuckles and says “Yes, it’s funny how the NOAA and CIA use similar terms.” For a moment I consider apologising and offering to terminate the interview, but we press on.
I’ve always been excited about exploration and science in unknown, far-off places. I’ve had the wanderlust bug my whole life. I would have gone to Antarctica for any job. I would have lived in a van: a love of exploring and pushing boundaries is really at the heart of what drove all that. I was fortunate to combine scientific work along the way.
As a kid, like many five-year-olds, I wanted to be an astronaut, and I never outgrew that ambition. Back in middle school, I had pictures of Antarctica up on my walls, and pictures of space. I got a job as an engineer working on space science instruments for NASA missions right out of college. So I was always moving in NASA’s direction, but it became important to me to not give up my other passions along the way, so I left a perfectly good job there to go on my own path. But I always kept my eyes on the dream that I had since I was young.
Interviewer’s note: With only fifteen minutes of interview time in total, we fast forward ahead to Christina’s time aboard the International Space Station.
Life on board the ISS, well, the workdays are very structured. We’d follow an electronic schedule that’s marked in five-minute increments, there's actually a little red line that moves across those five minute increments. And you’re constantly keeping up with that and just trying to be as efficient as possible to get all the tasks done for the day.
Those tasks fall into two categories: Firstly, there‘s the science, which is why we're there. The whole reason we have a space station is to do scientific work that we can't do on Earth, to bring benefits back to Earth.
And the other category is the maintenance, keeping the station running so we have a platform for the science. Getting to fix things, installing new equipment and troubleshooting is a big part of it. I love that stuff! Sometimes we’d need to do spacewalks to maintain and upgrade the exterior of the station. Occasionally we’d need to use the robotic arm to capture one of our cargo spaceships as it approaches. So it's very busy, very structured, but the views are great.
I had this brainwave to do surf spot photography from space, but I really had no idea if it would work. The first opportunity I had to point my lens down, we were actually over the Gold Coast.
It’s hard to overstate the importance of the sun glint off of the water – it really defines how much of the texture you can see on the water and whether you can see those swell lines or not. I'll never forget when it just so happened that our orbit and the sun glint matched up perfectly. I literally saw the swell rolling in and folding around the Gold Coast points. I could see the swell direction, and the effect of the swell shadow, and I could not believe how perfect a vantage point it was for doing surf photography.
It was the most amazing feeling, because I knew it was going to work and that this could be a project that I could do for my almost-year in space.
The timing was a critical, and something I had no control over, it was almost random whenever we would fly over certain places. I had a list of my favourite spots I wanted to check out, and so in the morning I’d set ten different alarms on my tablet (that I carried with me all the time) for when we were going to fly over all the spots. If I happened to be free, I’d grab my camera, run to the window really quick and snap a picture or two.
When I was trying to get really specific places, like say as a photograph of a break that was having a WSL comp or something, I would set my alarms for the middle of the night. So there were plenty of times when I would get up at three in the morning, float down to the one window that has a really good optical quality with the 800 millimeter lens and wait for Hawaii or whatever to go by underneath me. It was definitely a labour of love.
These moments were pretty ephemeral. After I realised that I could see the swell, my big holy grail goal was to see something brewing in the Southern Ocean and then see it show up at J'Bay or the Skeleton Coast, or in the Northern Hemisphere, see something blow up around Alaska and then see it show up on Hawaii’s North Shore.
I never quite got there though. And I think part of the reason is not all of it is as apparent from space as you might think. The storms that produce those big swell events, you can't really see the swell until it's been in the water and going for a long time and had a chance to kind organise itself.
The storms aren't as clear from up there; you would think it would look almost like a giant hurricane or something if there was one of these big storms, but it was harder than expected to pick it all out in real time, especially with limited opportunities to observe.
Though I never was able to fully attribute storms and systems, I would pull up surf forecasts to try and connect the dots. I did get, over time, to witness the shift of oceanic energies and activity as winter moved from one hemisphere to the next.
Also over time, with the positioning of the sun being so critical (as it would throw the swells into relief and make them defined) I would use our software to predict where the sun would be when we were crossing over a coastline – whether I would get that sun glint or not. I got better at that as the year went on.
Interviewer’s note: At this stage, we’ve reached our allocated fifteen minutes of interview time, and Megan, who’s monitoring our conversation (from Mission Control, I like to think) tells us we need to wrap the call up. Christina, who might be the most articulate, convivial and awesome person on earth, checks her schedule and says we can keep on yakking for a bit. Your correspondent immediately goes for the most pressing enquiry...
I really enjoyed watching the WSL comps while I was up there, but to answer your question, no, there were no complaints from the other astronauts about Joe Turpel’s commentary style. They didn’t have to hear it as I wore headphones…
Of all the spots I checked out, the break that always comes to mind for me the most – and I don't know if I'll ever be skilled enough to actually surf it – but I really want to go to the Skeleton Coast in Namibia.
It was absolutely phenomenal to see from space – the starkness of the desert right against the starkness of the water was one of the most striking things I ever witnessed. The swell is very apparent there. You can see the peeling point and just to witness the scale of that much isolation from space was so incredible. It’s just seared in my memory.
If ever I’m lucky enough to go there, just being able to truly picture where I am on Planet Earth, and what it looks like from above, would just be amazing.
Interviewer’s note. Our interview has now gone well past its allocation, time for one last question, so I ask: In the scenario of a crowded lineup with surfers being aggressive and territorial, does Christina think such folk might have their perspective changed by spending a little time at 250 miles up?
I think that the perspective of seeing Earth from space changes everyone, and really the big takeaway is the reminder that we’re all from the same planet, that there's more that unites us than separates us and, you know, localism, in the negative sense of it, is almost the opposite of that. It just stems from failing to recognise that people are essentially all the same and hopefully all out there for the same positive goals. And so, yeah, I think it would change perceptions. At the same time, seeing it from that perspective really does highlight what a special thing surfing is, and how rare the confluence of elements and coastline is for it.