Nina Wayne ’20 asks a question to NCSSM alumna and NASA astronaut Christina Koch ’97 aboard the International Space Station.Students of the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics gasped and cheered as NASA Astronaut Christina Hammock Koch appeared onscreen, surrounded by hatches and levers and electrical cables, her curls floating behind her head in a sharp video link transmitted from the orbiting International Space Station. The 1997 graduate of NCSSM wore a T-shirt reading “NCSSM Alumni.” “Hello North Carolina,” Koch told hundreds who packed the auditorium at NCSSM and a grand ballroom at NC State University, her college alma mater. “The International Space Station has you loud and clear. Welcome aboard.” There, 250 miles above the surface of the earth, somewhere above the northeastern coast of Australia — and, in a way, right there in the room with them — was someone who had been one of them and become someone they might hope to emulate. For the next 20 minutes, Koch, a NASA flight engineer, fielded prepared questions from students from both institutions in an event broadcast live on NASA TV. “It was really extraordinary, especially that moment when we first heard her voice come through the speakers, to know that voice was coming from space,” said one of the questioners, junior Jacob Goldstein, who asked Koch to demonstrate some of the most difficult things to do in microgravity. “To see her answer my question, to be able to see her demonstrate the answer to my question was truly amazing.” Amazing, indeed. After showing how items tend to float away on the space station without gravity, Koch released herself from her foot tethers, floated up out of the top of the frame, then passed back through the frame upside down. She added that her “bedroom” is on the ceiling of the space station, which doesn’t matter, because without gravity, up and down are meaningless. Mackenzie Savage, a senior, asked Koch how her NCSSM experiences helped her with the astronaut selection process, mission training, and her mission aboard the space station. “The motto of the school, ‘Accept the greater challenge’; really that got ingrained in me at NCSSM,” she told him. “My whole world opened up to me — just to realize that there was so much to explore, so much to learn. NCSSM allowed me to pursue different areas within STEM fields that I found particularly interesting,” including studying the history of NASA, as well as photography, and art. “I really can’t say enough about the different opportunities I had that led me to want to live a life to explore.” About 100 students, faculty and staff traveled to Raleigh, including 10 selected to pose questions to Koch alongside 10 NC State students. The rest of the student body took part in an all-school assembly at NCSSM.
Physics instructor Jacob Brown took the stage at NCSSM prior to the downlink as the “hype man,” building student enthusiasm while talking about Koch’s path to space. NCSSM’s Dr. Erin Quinlan led a Q&A panel session with experts ranging from a university botanist to physicists investigating black holes and prebiotic life in the universe. The questions ranged from the technical — how might plant life differ in space — to the hypothetical: Will we find intelligent life beyond Earth?
Physics instructor Jonathan Bennett, wearing his white lab coat, climbed a stepladder positioned beside a kiddie pool on the stage, and led an experiment on free-fall fluid dynamics. He noted that, at 5:50 that morning, he had stepped outside to watch Koch pass overhead in the space station, a tiny, steady point of light moving quietly across pre-dawn sky. In the time between that sighting and his taking the stage a few hours later, Koch had circled the earth nearly three times.For 20 minutes Koch fielded questions from students. By the time the live downlink ended, Koch had travelled nearly 6,000 miles around the Earth. As the time drew to a close too quickly, Chancellor Todd Roberts thanked Koch for the inspiration she gives young women and men. “I want to thank you for a truly amazing and out-of-this-world experience,” he said. “You model the career and life opportunities that North Carolina students can achieve through talent, hard work, and amazing public education.” “Thank you for this opportunity,” Koch responded. “I know that when I look down on North Carolina, it inspires me up here.” Emma Tucker, a junior from Washington, NC, got to ask Koch a question about role models. But she said she was particularly interested to hear in Koch’s answer to a different question about the role that coming to NCSSM from her hometown of Jacksonville played in Koch’s career, particularly because like Emma, Koch grew up in a small North Carolina town. “There’s so much stuff I haven’t seen before and so many new people,” Emma said of her “eye-opening” first few weeks as a residential student at NCSSM. “It’s awesome how she said it opened doors for her. I’m kind of hoping it will work out that way for me.” Emma paused for a moment and mused on it. “It is just so cool,” she said, recalling seeing Koch speak from the space station. “Her (NCSSM Alumni) shirt! I was like, ‘Oh my God, that shirt is for sale in the school store!’ It’s definitely inspiring.” Holly Buroughs, an NCSSM senior originally from East Gaston High School in Mount Holly, who arrived for the all-school event in Durham decked out in NASA and space attire, was similarly struck. “I’ve walked the same hallways as her, I’ve sat in the same classrooms as she did,” Holly said. “It’s like if I really put my mind to it, I could end up being in her place.”