NASA astronaut Christina Koch is well on her way to setting the record for the longest stay in space by a woman.
Koch is currently part of the American space agency's Expedition 59 and 60 crew, which launched to the International Space Station in March. She is joined by fellow astronauts Andrew Morgan and Jessica Meir.
The mission carries a huge importance for NASA, especially for Koch, who will be spending a total of 11 months aboard the ISS. Her extended stay on the orbital facility will help researchers learn more about the effects of long-term space mission on the female body.
How Space Can Affect Human Health
NASA has already outlined its plans to send Americans back to space within the next few years. Some of the space agency's intended target locations include the Moon, the Red Planet Mars, and even to other points of the galaxy.
Such missions would require astronauts to spend long durations on spaceflights, which could result in serious health effects on their bodies. This is why it is crucial for researchers to collect as much data on the impacts of long-term stints in space.
Agency scientists have already gathered data on male humans, courtesy of former astronaut Scott Kelly's 340-day stay on the ISS from 2015 to 2016.
Kelly experienced significant changes in his body, particularly with his chromosomes. His nearly yearlong mission on the ISS caused his telomeres, or the compound structures at the end of chromosomes, to shrink.
This development is mostly associated with aging and can increase the risk for illnesses such as cancer and cardiovascular disease.
Some of Kelly's chromosomes also went through structural changes, with some parts swapping, inverting, and even merging with each other. These effects have been linked to infertility and certain types of cancers.
Women's Bodies React Differently To Long-Term Spaceflight
Koch's 328-day mission in space will provide NASA with data on the female body. Researchers believe spaceflight affects men and women differently, as suggested in a 2014 study.
The paper showed that women are more likely to experience faintness than men due to a cardiovascular issue known as orthostatic hypotension.
Meanwhile, men are more susceptible to vision problems during spaceflight because of a condition called neuro-ocular syndrome (SANS).
With both sets of health data, NASA scientists will be able to get a clearer picture of how the human body reacts to the environment in space. This will help astronauts prepare better for long-term missions in the future.
"Astronauts demonstrate amazing resilience and adaptability in response to long duration spaceflight exposure," said Jennifer Fogarty of NASA's Johnson Space Center.
"These opportunities have also demonstrated that there is a significant degree of variability in the responses of humans to spaceflight, and it is important to determine the acceptable degree of change for both men and women."
By the time Koch completes her ISS mission, she would have beaten Peggy Whitson's previous record of 288 days on the space station from 2016 to 2017. It would also bring her just a few days shy of Kelly's nearly one-year stint.