Dr. Christina Birch

Dr. Christina Birch, a member of the Gilbert High Class of 2004, is now an astronaut, NASA announced last week. Her father said she has always been “highly curious and motivated.”

Dr. Christina Birch, a 2004 Gilbert High School alumna, is going to the moon.

Birch is one of 10 new astronaut candidates picked from a field of over 12,000 applicants to represent the United States and work for humanity’s benefit in space, NASA announced last week. The 2021 astronaut class is the first new class in four years.

Although the 35-year-old Birch was born in Mesa, she considers Gilbert her hometown. Birch has a younger sibling, Rebecca, who also graduated from Gilbert High. 

The family moved from Tempe to Gilbert in 1993, where Birch also attended Burk Elementary and Gilbert Junior High School.  

“She has always been highly curious and motivated, which was noticeable from an early age,” said dad William Birch. “And she has always wanted to do everything well.

“She had an outstanding academic background in Gilbert that helped her academic career.”

He said his wife, Joanne, who passed away in 2011, made sure their daughter was exposed at an early age to successful women.

“Her mother was a teacher and later a software support engineer at Motorola,” said William, who also was a Motorola engineer.

Williams said while his daughter excelled academically at Gilbert High, she also participated in cross-country running and tennis. 

“We were a family that did a lot of white water rafting on the upper Salt River over quite a few years and she learned to guide a raft safely in unpredictable situations,” William said.

He said his eldest daughter kept with her athletic pursuits by participating in inter-mural triathlons while attending University of Arizona, where she earned a degree in mathematics, biochemistry and molecular biophysics. She earned a doctorate in biological engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Massachusetts. 

At MIT, she switched to cyclocross and eventually track cycling, winning a Division 2 national championship in cyclocross, William said. Cyclocross is described as a cross between road cycling, mountain biking and steeplechase.

“She trained from time to time in Gilbert and surrounding areas while she pursued her cycling career,” William recalled.  

Birch also attended Universidad de Belgrano in Buenos Aires for a year and is fluent in Spanish.

Her career path included teaching bioengineering at the University of California, Riverside, and scientific writing and communication at the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena. 

She subsequently left Caltech to become a track cyclist on the U.S. National Team and qualify for the Olympics, based out of the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado, according to her NASA bio. 

With her teammates, she earned three World Cup medals in the team pursuit and Madison races, and twice participated in the World Championships. She supported her teammates up until final race selection for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Besides cycling and white water rafting, Birch enjoys backpacking and visiting her family’s cattle ranch in Montana.

Birch is in the middle of two years of initial astronaut training at NASA Johnson Space Center.

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.

Upon completion, they could be assigned to missions that involve performing research aboard the space station, launching from American soil on spacecraft built by commercial companies, as well as deep-space missions to destinations, including the moon on NASA’s Orion spacecraft and Space Launch System rocket.

For the first time ever, NASA required candidates to hold a master’s degree in a STEM field and used an online assessment tool. The women and men selected for the new astronaut class represent the diversity of America and the career paths that can lead to a place in America’s astronaut corps, according to the release.

NASA now has selected 360 astronauts since the original Mercury Seven in 1959.

“We’ve made many giant leaps throughout the last 60 years, fulfilling President Kennedy’s goal of landing a man on the moon,” said Johnson center Director Vanessa Wyche in a released statement. “Today we reach further into the stars as we push forward to the Moon once again and on to Mars with NASA’s newest astronaut candidate class.”