Christina Birch Astronaut 2021
Team USA

Christina Birch selected for the NASA Astronaut Class of 2021

By: Angelina Palermo  December 07, 2021

The USA Cycling National Team Member will begin training for potential missions to the moon and work on the International Space Station.

HOUSTON – USA Cycling National Team member and Tokyo 2020 Olympic Long Team member Christina Birch, Ph.D. (Gilbert, Ariz.), has been selected for the Astronaut Class of 2021. Birch has represented the U.S. at multiple World Championships, is a three-time World Cup Medalist, two-time Pan American Games Gold Medalist, and an 11-time National Champion. Now, she will start a new adventure off the bike as she begins her two-year Astronaut Candidate (ASCAN) training in January for the Artemis missions: the goal being to return to the moon.

"I am super excited to be a 2021 Astronaut Candidate. It is a little still surreal for me. It wasn't probably until I put on the blue flight suit for the first time that it actually started to feel real. I distinctly remember when I submitted my application to be an astronaut candidate. I was sitting in the dorm rooms at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, and it was in between track workouts. I filled out my application online before we headed back to the track for some really hard efforts with the team. After the Olympic selection, I had a couple of interviews at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. Each one just left me feeling like this was a better fit for me and what I wanted to be doing, and that this is an environment that I really loved and would want to be a part of. Now that I'm here and I'm getting to know my classmates, it is just the most incredible team environment I could ask for especially coming from cycling, where that's something that I really enjoy," said Birch.

Birch progressively made her way through the application process and was stunned to learn that she made it into the final ten selected for the Astronaut Class of 2021. This group was selected out of 12,500 applicants. She said, "It feels unreal. It's sort of a dream. You're holding your breath this whole time throughout the application process, hoping that you're going to make it. I met so many incredible people during the interview process. Everyone is incredibly qualified. Everyone would bring something unique and powerful to the program. So, it really just feels like I won the lottery."

As an accomplished cyclist, Birch is excited to put those experiences to the test on this new mission.

"I definitely think that being in sport and taking it to a really high level and trying to be the best athlete that I could be really helped me in the application process and is going to serve me well going forward," she said. "I think that it's going to be a requirement to show up every day and give 100% to my training. Just like I was training in cycling, I now have two years of really intensive training to graduate to become an astronaut assigned to potential missions to the moon and go do science on the International Space Station. So I think having a lot of comfort and familiarity going into unknown difficult processes, and still bringing 100% even when you're tired, those are lessons I learned as a cyclist that are going to serve me really well as a candidate."

As one can imagine, Astronaut Candidate training will be extremely intensive and challenging. Birch said, "I'm really excited about the Astronaut Candidate training because it's very diverse, so we have several main areas that we're going to be trained in. Some of those are the space station systems, Russian language, robotics, spacewalk training, and all of those are really exciting and interesting to me. They're all going to pose their own unique challenges, but you know, similar to how I would rely on my teammates at the track, I have all of my classmates here that will have different strengths than I have. We're going to help each other through this, and we are absolutely going to get through our training together as a class."

When asked about her riding during these next few years, she said, "I'm definitely still going to keep riding and racing when I can. I'm excited to get to know the roads around Houston. There is a velodrome in Katy, so I hope to see what that's all about. It's just really important that I stay physically quite fit and ready to tackle the training and keep my body ready for, hopefully in the next few years, some sort of spaceflight or long-duration mission."

Birch had to be qualified to get to this point in her space mission. She received her undergraduate degree at the University of Arizona in Biochemistry & Molecular Biophysics and Mathematics. Then received her Ph.D. at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Biological Engineering. Interestingly enough, she got her start in collegiate cycling at MIT. Birch said, "I definitely got my start, especially in cycling, at MIT. MIT Cycling Team was super supportive. We had an incredible women's team that was really fast, which inspired me to get faster and race more. That is certainly how I eventually got the opportunity to race on the national team was from starting to race collegiately. You mentioned you're at cyclocross nationals, that was my first discipline racing cyclocross, so it has a warm place in my heart for that. For me, the balance between riding at MIT and working in the lab was essential because my lab work was pretty solo and isolating. I was super focused on my experiments, and it took a lot of time, having the team environment to come back to, to push myself in a new and different way, a really helpful balance. I think this will be a really exciting next couple of years because the training is going to be very similar, I think. It's going to be both intense, isolated study, but also part of a team and doing a lot of training together as a team."

Earlier this year, she also took on a different role in cycling. Her partner, Individual Pursuit World Champion, Ashton Lambie, attempted the 4k World Record, and she was the all-in-one support staff for him. Birch acted as a coach, mechanic, soigneur and did anything she could to prepare him for that effort.

Birch commented on the effort, "It's definitely a different experience to be the supporter, the mechanic on the sidelines, versus the racer, and I honestly think it's probably easier to be the person racing because there's actually more actions you can take to affect the outcome. Being the supporter was a fun and interesting role for me because there were lots of different elements I was trying to think of and trying to really prepare Ashton as best as I could to go off and do his job and to just execute the task that we had. I was still just as nervous as if I was racing. I think both of those roles; being the person tasked with executing the mission or the person that's supporting the people that are doing that intensive work, I think you can't have a mission success outcome like that without both roles, so I think it's important to take part in both processes."

Birch closed out her interview showing immense gratitude for the sport of cycling. She said," I just really want to reiterate how awesome it was to be a part of the cycling community and just to encourage everybody that is out there that is interested in space to keep tuned in. It's great to share this journey with everybody."

Birch has now moved to Houston with Lambie, where she will begin her training at the Johnson Space Center.

You can follow along on Instagram at the NASA Johnson Space Center and the NASA Astronauts pages. Birch will be going through extensive training the next few years but will post updates on her instagram page, @astro_birch, when she can.

Photo courtesy of NASA

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