“After 328 days in space, the first six days back on Earth were full of just as much wonder and excitement,” Koch said. “We all live on a wonderful planet and it’s great to be back.”
Koch isn’t sure who was more excited about reuniting: her, or her dog, LBD, which stands for Little Brown Dog. She adopted LBD from the Human Society. “To see your favorite animal is a symbol of coming back to the people and places you love,” she said.
Koch also came home to a kitchen filled with some of her favorite food: chips and salsa, provided by friends, family and neighbors.
And the motivation of getting back to the beach and the sensations of nature motivated Koch through athletic training and physical therapy during her first few days back on Earth. Her goal was to walk on the beach, and she was able to sink her toes in the sand on Sunday.
Koch described the joy of seeing so many people again and feeling her body reacclimate as “her mind [wakes] up to sensory experiences that define Earth.”
Apart from regaining her balance and getting used to walking again, Koch has been lucky. Unlike previous astronauts who returned from long-duration spaceflight missions, Koch didn’t experience motion sickness. Muscle aches are normal, and she felt a few in her neck — something she compared to a two-week-old working hard to hold up her head after floating in microgravity for close to a year.
She received advice from astronauts Scott Kelly and Peggy Whitson, who also hold records for long spaceflights (Koch has surpassed Whitson’s record of 288 days). They told her to pace herself and do what she loved. Long missions on the space station are “an ultra-marathon, not a marathon,” they’re fond of saying.
Mentally, Koch decided to focus on the fact that her time on the station was special. So rather than focusing on the things she missed from Earth, Koch thought about the things she’d never have again once her mission was over. This “mental cheerleading” allowed Koch to put positive messages on repeat in her head, she said.
But Koch adjusted well to space initially. One of her favorite moments was when they arrived at the space station. “I regarded it as this amazing place, my new home for the next year,” Koch said. “Something I had trained for so long had come to life.”
It only took three months for Koch to feel like the space station was home, and replacing her routine from Earth with the unusual aspects of microgravity became normal. She forgot she was floating until a new crew would arrive, because they were so excited about experiencing the sensation.
When it was time to come home, Koch’s personal effects making the return trip all fit in a shoebox — mainly mementos donated by friends and family members that she was excited to give back with a new memory attached to their sentiment.
Koch’s message to young people who aspire to be astronauts is to “follow your passions, live the life you’ve imagined and do what scares you.”
Koch herself knew she wanted to be an astronaut at five years old — but she also knew the chances of becoming one were low. She began with a single-minded goal, but when she went to Space Camp and learned about the process for becoming an astronaut, she made a key decision.
“I wasn’t going to live according to a checklist,” Koch said. “If the experience I gained would allow me to contribute in a great way to the space program, only then would I apply.”
Breaking her single-minded approach allowed Koch to pursue other passions, like rock-climbing and quitting an engineering job at NASA to pursue work in Antarctica — both of which helped her become a better astronaut, she said.
As far as her records achieved in space — longest spaceflight, and the first three all-female spacewalks — Koch isn’t a stats person who keeps score. To her, the best thing that can happen when a record is set is when someone else breaks it.
Looking back on her mission, Koch will never forget how she felt when she saw Earth for the first time. She was in the Soyuz capsule on the six-hour rendezvous with the space station in March 2019, along with NASA astronaut Nick Hague and Russian cosmonaut Alexey Ovchinin. She looked out at Earth and exclaimed, “oh, my goodness.” Then she realized how dangerous that could be without explaining her reaction — because in space, it could mean any number of issues had come up. She clarified, “Everything is OK. It’s just Earth.”
“I looked out the window and there was Earth. It looked brighter and way more real than I imagined it could be,” Koch said. “I realized this was real and that I had left our planet.”