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Christina Birch swaps cycling for outer space

US' Christina Birch and Kimberly Geist celebrate after winning the Women's Madison cycling finals at the Panamerican Games 2019 in Lima Peru, on August 4, 2019 (Photo by Luis ACOSTA / AFP) (Photo credit should read LUIS ACOSTA/AFP via Getty Images)
Birch celebrates Madison victory at the 2019 Pan-Am Games (Image credit: Getty Images)

Christina Birch, a former US national champion on the track, has left professional cycling behind and is on her way into space, landing a coveted role as an astronaut with NASA. 

The 35-year-old won the national individual pursuit title in 2016 and 2017, and represented the USA at World Championships and the Pan-American Games, where she has won two gold medals. 

She used to race cyclo-cross, as well as being a prominent gravel rider in recent years, setting up the 'Gravelnauts' collective. However, cycling will now take a back seat after it was announced she has been accepted onto NASA’s first intake in four years, landing one of 10 spots from a field of 12,000 applicants.

“Today we welcome 10 new explorers, 10 members of the Artemis generation, NASA’s 2021 astronaut candidate class. Each candidate has ‘the right stuff,’ but together they represent the creed of our country: E pluribus unum – out of many, one," said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson in a ceremony on Monday.

Birch has a background in academia, graduating from the University of Arizona with bachelor’s degrees in mathematics and in biochemistry and molecular biophysics, before completing a doctorate in biological engineering. She then took up teaching roles in California before deciding to go full-time with cycling to try and make the 2020 Olympics, earning a spot on the long list but not the flight to Tokyo. 

She will start her new career in January and will begin with two years of initial training, after which she could be assigned to missions into deep space and to the moon. 

"As you can see, from my incredible classmates seated here beside me, there’s really no one path to becoming a NASA astronaut candidate. And, you know, you might think that my path as a bio engineer and a cyclist is a little bit out there, but it was really all of those skills that I gained from those experiences that helped me get here,” Birch said at the new intake ceremony. 

"I think my advice would be to find something that you’re really interested in, really curious about, passionate about, and explore that deeply. And I think if you approach every day trying to do the little things well, they will add up to something really big, and that might be sitting here someday as a NASA astronaut candidate."

Birch’s partner is fellow track rider Ashton Lambie, who revealed that they received the news of the NASA call-up on October 22, during the Track World Championships where he won the individual pursuit world title. 

"On October 22, in between the rounds of IP at world champs in Roubaix, I sat in a hotel room eating a baguette. On the other side of the world, [Christina] got a phone call, asking if she wanted to be a nasa astronaut, and called me to share. We were both absolutely blown away," Lambie wrote on social media on Monday.

"How do you think about a world championship when your partner is going to space? Sitting in a stairwell in my rainbow jersey we talked about the biggest day in our little family's history so far. So, we moved to Houston, and had to keep it very quiet, because the official announcement wasn't until today. 

"So now, I can say that this person I love so much is going to start training at Johnson Space Center, we moved to Texas, and [she] is awesome. You could say we're over the moon about it, and we can't wait to share more about everything."

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Deputy Editor - Europe. Patrick is an NCTJ-trained journalist who has seven years’ experience covering professional cycling. He has a modern languages degree from Durham University and has been able to put it to some use in what is a multi-lingual sport, with a particular focus on French and Spanish-speaking riders. After joining Cyclingnews as a staff writer on the back of work experience, Patrick became Features Editor in 2018 and oversaw significant growth in the site’s long-form and in-depth output. Since 2021 he has been Deputy Editor - Europe, taking more responsibility for the site’s content as a whole, while still writing and - despite a pandemic-induced hiatus - travelling to races around the world. Away from cycling, Patrick spends most of his time playing or watching other forms of sport - football, tennis, trail running, darts, to name a few, but he draws the line at rugby.