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11-time national champion track cyclist Christina Birch is going to become an astronaut

Birch was selected out of 12,000 applicants to begin astronaut training in January of 2022. She says that her experiences on the track will form the foundation of her new career.

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Before December 6, if you Google’d Christina Birch’s name, the first website that came up was the track cyclist’s USA Cycling “Meet the Athlete” page.

Now, however, her name brings up a different homepage – nasa.gov.

That’s because Birch, an 11-time track national champion, two-time Pan Am gold medalist, and Olympic long team member, is going to become an astronaut.

Read also: Christina Birch’s journey from MIT bioengineer to Olympic hopeful

On Monday, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration — or NASA as we know it — announced its candidates for the 2021 astronaut class, and Birch was one of 10 selected. Over 12,000 people applied to the program, and it’s the first time NASA has named a new astronaut class in four years.

Birch and the other candidates will report for duty at Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas in January 2022 to begin two years of training. Astronaut candidate training falls into five major categories: operating and maintaining the International Space Station’s complex systems, training for spacewalks, developing complex robotics skills, safely operating a T-38 training jet, and Russian language skills.

All 10 candidates have advanced degrees — Birch herself has undergraduate degrees in mathematics, biochemistry, and molecular biophysics, as well as a doctorate in biological engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology — and seven of them are members of the U.S. military.

Birch is the only professional athlete.

In an exclusive interview with VeloNews on Tuesday, Birch talked about how the skills and experiences she gained on the track, as well as her academic background, likely helped her secure a spot in the incredibly selective astronaut program.

VeloNews: First off, congratulations! What was the application process like and how long did it take? 

Christina Birch: It was my first time applying, and I applied in March of 2020. I was sitting in the dorms at the Olympic Training Center in between track training sessions in the morning and afternoon filling out the application. That was before the Olympics were postponed. It wasn’t an opportunity that I wanted to miss. It wasn’t until this year that I was called for a first interview and a second interview later on. Pretty incredibly I got to know all the other interviewees really well, and four other people that I interviewed with are actually now my classmates. It’s really exciting because we started to bond and work and think like a team during the interview process, and that makes me so excited for what’s to come.

VN: During the process, was the interview team interested in your cycling career? 

CB: I would say that we spoke a large chunk of time during my first interview about my pursuit in the sport. Not just going to the Olympics but also the skills that you gain doing that kind of training day in and day out, year after year. It’s very similar to the training we’ll do as candidates.

There were a lot of questions about that — does this person have the skills? Will they be able to function as a member of the team? I really think I got those experiences as a professional athlete. 

VN: How long has this been a dream of yours? 

CB: It’s something that’s always been a little kids dream but nothing I seriously thought would happen to me. Like, ‘that’s for pilots or people who have a different background.’ It wasn’t until I was working in the lab as undergrad or at MIT where I saw I was doing similar experiments that were happening aboard the space station. It was like, well I have those skills, I have teamwork skills. Mechanics. I work on my own bike and am pretty passionate about being able to work on my bike and understand how it works. 

I love being in a high performance environment and that’s very similar to the environment of being an astronaut. You wear many hats — you’re a leader and also a follower. 

I’m just starting to get to know my classmates, but we have a ton in common and we’ve gained our skills through really diverse backgrounds. All of my military classmates have to work in team situations and be leaders. They’re incredibly skilled operations technicians and engineers in their fields. All of us at least have a masters degree. I am fully confident that I’m in good company

VN: I imagine the excitement of the moment trumps any sadness you might feel about leaving the sport of cycling but is it difficult to reconcile the two emotions?

CB: It’s definitely a lot of emotion to hold at one time. The excitement about the potential and also trying to continue to push yourself every day. I had big cycling goals. I wasn’t going to shut any doors on myself.

I did not have plans to retire from pro cycling but this obviously is a bigger dream and a bigger passion. Something that I felt really fulfilled by when I was teaching was being able to serve and contribute and inspire people. I’m so grateful to have this opportunity to return to serve on such a large scale 

VN: What will you miss about riding your bike for a living? 

CB: I loved traveling the world with my team and working toward a goal together and being able to execute it. But what I’m really hopeful about and what I’ve seen so far at NASA is that I’m going to have similar experiences this year. I’m still riding and training to stay fit and healthy. That’s a really important task for us as astronaut candidates to stay fit and healthy for space flights, so I’m excited that that still gets to be part of my job.

There is a bike on the space station and it would be so cool to ride up there and virtually participate in some sort of ride happening down here — that would be fantastic.

It maxes out at a lower wattage than you’d like, so it probably wouldn’t be a track race.

NASA astronaut candidate Christina Birch. (Photo: Courtesy NASA)

VN: Do you see parallels between training as a cyclist and training as an astronaut?

CB: You know, everything is what you make of it. I definitely really liked pushing myself in all of these directions and frontiers, both in research and teaching and also on the bike. I loved the data driven side of track racing We’re messing around with aerodynamics and peak-power output during the team pursuit effort. Digging deeply into the sport gave me more skills that I’m going to apply during my astronaut training.

Our training will be a mix of classroom learning, operational learning, and practice. There’s a huge emphasis on practice because we need to be exposed to different scenarios. Learning space station systems. Learning the Russian language which I’m really excited about. I’m really excited to fly a T-38 jet.

VN: Has the cycling community been supportive of your transition?

CB: You know, yesterday was pretty crazy, and I think people have been reaching out but Ashton [Lambie] has been dealing with a lot of it. It’s been so incredible to share this with him. We both got our good news on the same day — his with the rainbow stripes. It’s been so awesome to come together and celebrate huge career goals. 

I really want to bring the cycling community along with me on this journey. And, I’m trying to recruit people here to come ride with me, maybe we’ll go check out the velodrome down in Katy.

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