Astronaut Christina Koch receives the ATHENA Global Leadership Award
Sunday, August 30, 2020
Posted by: Judith S. Prince
My hope is that ATHENA women everywhere can feel the joy and pride I felt participating in the live webinar “Reaching for the Stars” during which Astronaut Christina Koch was presented the ATHENA Global Leadership Award. Extraordinary is the one word I would use to describe the event as Astronaut Koch shared personal stories about her journey into space! Equally inspiring was the way in which she embraced the ATHENA Leadership Model, detailing how the ATHENA Leadership Principles applied to her life, to preparation for her journey into space, and to her leadership challenges in space.
Two years in the making, the event was a collaboration between ATHENA International and SAS Women in Analytics. How wonderful to see Andrea Conner, past president of ATHENA International, and Ann Playter, current president of ATHENA International co-hosting the event with Michelle Proctor, Principal Business Operations Specialist at SAS! Congratulations to Andrea, Michelle, Ann and all who planned this special event!
Participant comments were very positive: “All I can say is "fabulous!" from start to finish.” “Christina was engaging, dynamic, articulate and so incredibly interesting. She hit on an array of important points, and I believe she inspired every single participant. What a phenomenal woman, speaker, and role model.” Dr. MaryLee Davis said, “It was great! As the first ATHENA recipient in 1982, I especially enjoyed seeing the Principles being actualized in multiple ways! Wonderful presentation by each presenter. I was thrilled that the "younger" college-related experiences/voice of Christina came thru!!”
If you were unable to participate in this exceptional event, please listen to a recording of the webinar. Using the link https://www.sas.com/en_ca/webinars/2020/reach-for-the-stars.html, you must register for the webinar as if you were attending the live event. After completing the registration, you will receive an email from SAS Webinar with the link to “Reaching for the Stars.” I am sharing only a few highlights in this article.
Christina Hammock Koch realized a childhood dream when she was selected as an astronaut by NASA in 2013, one of eight members of the 21st astronaut class. She completed astronaut candidate training in 2015. From March 14, 2019 to February 6, 2020, she served as flight engineer on the International Space Station (ISS) for Expeditions 59, 60 and 61. Koch set a record for the longest single spaceflight by a woman with a total of 328 days in space. While in space, she conducted more than 210 scientific investigations which advanced technology that will return astronauts to the Moon and prepare NASA for human exploration on Mars. She conducted six spacewalks during 11 months in orbit, including the first all-woman spacewalk, spending a total of 42 hours and 15 minutes outside the ISS.
Upon receiving the ATHENA Global Leadership Award, Astronaut Koch felt a strong responsibility to live up to Plato’s’ quote “What is honored in a country will be cultivated there,” by taking an even bigger role as one of those cultivators. She pledged “to make sure that I recognize the people who paved the path for me to be where I am today and who inspired me do so, to continue to give back, to mentor, and to make sure I pay my experiences forward and share everything I have learned along the way.” She pledged “to make sure that future leaders appreciate the values for which the ATHENA Leadership Award stands—the ATHENA Leadership Principles.” Christina concluded by saying, “It is an honor to be part of your team and doing that together.” How extraordinary to have this fearless leader modeling ATHENA Leadership!
During the webinar, Christina shared information about NASA and her preparation to become an astronaut. Especially interesting were the pictures and videos she showed about living on the ISS, including foods she ate, how she slept, how she exercised, what she took with her to space which had to fit in a shoebox (anyone for Travel Scrabble?), and much more.
It was exciting to hear two high school students and one middle school student ask Astronaut Koch questions during the event. The participating students were selected based on essays written on how their curiosity is inspiring them to constantly reach for the stars. The essay contest was created and judged by students from the Wake Young Women’s Leadership Academy which is a part of a pilot ATHENA in Tech initiative.
One student, Mia, asked the question, “What keeps you motivated throughout your astronaut training and time in space?” Christina said, “I have an inherent love for contributing to the human space flight program. Following something you are passionate about can really be that motivating factor. I also operate off a sense of duty which I learned from my grandmother and other members of my family who taught me to do my best every day and focus on what I can contribute to any situation.”
For the United States /Russia partnership during Expeditions 59, 60, and 61, Astronaut Koch was the leader of all aspects of the United States operation in space, a truly unique leadership experience for the only female and only civilian on the team. All other astronauts were military personnel at the colonel level or higher. Christina often joked with them that she was the “General.”
Illustrating once again the universality of the ATHENA Leadership Model, Astronaut Koch analyzed her leadership during that time using the ATHENA Leadership Principles. She saw her strengths as being a “Fierce Advocate,” “Collaboration,” and “Joy and Celebration.” As a “Fierce Advocate,” she would fight for her team if they brought up concerns that needed to be resolved with the ground team. Christina prioritized “Joy and Celebration.” When her team achieved a goal together, such as completing a spacewalk or capturing a visiting vehicle, she took time to recognize and celebrate that achievement. “Collaboration,” says Christina, “was really important to me. I wanted all to be on board with all decisions made by the group.”
Christina spoke about ATHENA leadership principles that she feels she could have handled better. There were times she felt that she should adopt a more militaristic or regimented style of leadership, especially as she was the only civilian on the astronaut team. However, she chose to be her “Authentic Self.” Regarding “Learning,” Christina says, “Even though I am in love with learning in general, there are times you must focus on not just learning the technical things but on the interpersonal things in any situation. You must be able to adapt your leadership style to different personalities or different situations. When ways of doing things in the past may not work, you must be willing to accept when your ideas may need to be modified.” On “Building Relationships,” she says that to keep relationships healthy, you must be up front in communicating expectations which allows you to build trust with your team.
In the “Passing the Guard” ceremony at the end of her space journey, the following quote was applied to Christina’s leadership: “No one cares how much you know until they know how much you care.” To Astronaut Koch, to be recognized as supporting and caring about the people around her was the most meaningful description of her time as a leader in space.
Astronaut Koch shared a time when her leadership was put to a test. During an outdoor leadership seminar while training with her astronaut team, she says, “I was the leader one day, and we got lost! To face this leadership challenge, I relied on being confident and “Acting Courageously” as my superpower that day.”
There were many questions submitted to Christina, but time allowed responses to only a few. Martha Mertz, Founder of ATHENA International, asked, “What is the most courageous thing you have done?” Christina’s response was remarkable! She said, “When I think about courage, I think about another mantra, ‘Brave not perfect’…When I reflect on a situation that required that I put aside my usual tendency to be perfect and embrace bravery and courage, it was the first ever all-female spacewalk. It was not a planned spacewalk. Jessica Meir [another NASA astronaut on the space station at the time] and I had to replace a faulty battery outside the space station… I had never ridden the robotic arm in space, so I had to let go of knowing all I needed to know. Recognizing that we had to get the job done without the normal level of preparation to which I was accustomed, I recognized that it is OK not to be perfect. For me, that took a lot of courage.”
Astronaut Christina Koch says she is excited to be part of any future NASA mission, and she stays ready to accept any assignment. There are several opportunities, including Artemis, NASA's program to return astronauts to the lunar surface by 2024 or future stays on the International Space Station. I have no doubt that we will see Astronaut Koch in space again! Safe travels Christina!
Judith S. Prince