As NASA astronaut Christina Koch waves goodbye to the International Space Station, with its spectacular views and microgravity after a record-setting stay of 328 days in space, new challenges await her.
Once back on the ground, Koch will provide researchers with a window into how the human body copes – or does not – with prolonged periods in space and then readapts to Earth’s gravity.
“I’m definitely looking forward to being on the same planet as everybody else very soon,” Koch said on Tuesday in a news conference.
She said: “For me, one of the things I’m really looking forward to is seeing the plasma go by on the window when we’re actually doing reentry and the Gs are starting to hit. I think that will really make it feel real that I’m actually coming back from space.”
While her time in microgravity may be over, her journey as part of the NASA astronaut corps, however, is far from finished and it does not necessarily include more space flight.
Researchers at NASA’s Human Research Program say Koch is about to join those who have gone before and contribute her physiological data to support and improve the critical element that will make crewed missions to Mars possible: the human system. Whoever is finally chosen to go, will endure roughly 500 days of spaceflight just to reach the red planet.
A soft landing is still hard
Koch’s new challenges start when she lands at 4:14am US east-coast time (09:14 GMT).
“The process of recovery begins right away. And it doesn’t start out particularly pretty,” Jennifer Fogarty, chief scientist at NASA’s Human Research Program, told Al Jazeera.
She said that for anyone returning from having lived and worked in space for any length of time of more than a few months, let alone almost a year “is so provocative”.
What Koch and her crewmates will feel when they again enter the earth’s gravity is significant disorientation of their vestibular system – the sensors inside our ears that tell us which way is up – and a gravity-induced rush of blood away from their heads to their toes.
Fogarty said: “They’re going to have trouble standing. They’re going to have trouble turning their heads. They’re going to be so motion sick they’re going to vomit. At a minimum, they are going to be incredibly nauseous. And you know anytime they have that, it disrupts [their] ability to think. Right? It is not an easy experience to feel so not well, but have to function.”
Even more challenging, especially in the months to come is the fact that despite regular advanced resistance exercises on the ISS, her back, leg and arms muscles have not worked as hard as they would have here on earth.
“I haven’t actually put my feet down or walked in a long time,” Koch said.
About her return to Earth she said: “You suddenly have to work to raise your arms and of course your legs … I think that will definitely be something to get used to. I haven’t had to hold up even my own body weight in some time.”
No easy stroll home
While Koch and her crewmates may be incapacitated on touchdown, they are landing in Kazakhstan, not on far-away Mars. They will first be greeted and cared for by the highly experienced Russian search-and-rescue forces.
Fogarty explained that while search-and-rescue officers initially move very quickly to open the capsule’s hatch, after that, all onward movement slows down to a methodical crawl. The officers will get into the spacecraft and slowly lift each astronaut out of their seat and the craft to a lawn chair.
She said, once in the chairs the astronauts are slowly taken to safety to a reception point to give them a chance to get their bearings and a satellite phone to call home. They then proceed to a medical tent to measure how well their bodies and minds are coping with feeling abysmally ill and adjusting to gravity.
Dr Scott Dulchavsky, the Human Research Program’s principal investigator told Al Jazeera, “As soon as they’re verified that ‘you’re stable’, blood pressure and things like that, they get packaged into a jet and get whisked back to Houston. [Christina] will be home in half a day.”
“And then a whole pile of experiments get done, looking at how responsive your physiology is, to how quickly you can correct,” he said.
Dulchavsky said that at the top of the list are tests focusing on vertebral health – spines can stretch as much as three inches in microgravity – and cardiovascular function, particularly how the heart is responding to gravity. These tests are time-sensitive because the heart and spine will quickly adapt back to gravity, with the spine returning to its original length.
A lot of astronauts complain of having back and joint pain once on the ground. Dulchavsky and Fogarty stress that the pace and ability of each astronaut to bounce back is different.
Why this matters for Mars
All this immediate poking and prodding Koch will endure along with performing tasks will add to the research necessary for NASA to land its first astronauts on Mars by 2033, without the rescue crews to receive them some 54.6 million kilometres from home.
Fogarty told Al Jazeera: “This is helping us understand what kind of resources and what kind of vehicle design will the Mars landing require for people who do not have assistance.
“How can the crew recover and take care of themselves and each other during a 24- to 48-hour period where things are kind of the roughest? But they also have to learn how to rehabilitate themselves to get functional,” she said.
She said that while 13 years may seem like a long time, in terms of research and engineering a post-landing vehicular solution it is really not much time at all. What is more, because there have not been that many astronauts who have been in space for longer than six months – let alone a year – the volume of knowledge on the effects of long-long-duration spaceflight is fairly slim.
“We’re in the midst of also taking our data, translating it to the engineers and the technology specialists who are off designing the vehicle for the mission itself,” Fogarty said. “It’s been very much engineering, vehicle- centric, since Apollo. We’ve worked very hard to get the human recognised as a system.”