On November 17, astronaut Peggy Whitson launched into space to study human life sciences aboard the International Space Station (ISS). Whitson is not a stranger to breaking records, and during her stay on the ISS she will break some more.
With a Ph.D. in biochemistry, Whitson began her career as a researcher at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. In 1996, she was selected to be an astronaut, and in 2008, she commanded the ISS for the first time. For Whitson, working in space has been a dream come true. She believes that her work on the ISS is her greatest contribution.
On April 9, Whitson became the first woman to twice command the ISS, having been named the commander of the 100 billion dollar station after Shane Kimbrough returned to Earth. Additionally, she will exceed Jeff Williams’ record of 534 days in space on April 24. When her trip commences in September, she will have stayed over 666 days (or around 22 months) off the planet. Whitson originally planned to return in June, but her stay was extended by three months. She could not be happier about this.
Whitson is already the world’s most experienced female astronaut, but her latest mission will rank her as NASA’s most experienced active astronaut, period. She will stand as the third most experienced astronaut in the world, behind only Russian cosmonaut Anatoly Solovyev and retired astronaut Mike Lopez-Alegria.
On top of these accomplishments, at age 57, Whitson is the oldest woman to go to space, and she has performed eight space walks, a record for female astronauts. However, Whiston claims that record-holding is not as important to her as the progress she and her team are making on the ISS. Whitson’s goals circulate around learning and growth, and her satisfaction stems from her contributions to spaceflight and exploration.
“It’ll be a real mark when we don’t have to talk about it,” Whitson says regarding her accomplishments as a female astronaut. She looks forward to the day when her records are irrelevant because of the amount of other women in her field. When asked if she views herself as a role model, she humbly replies, “It’s not something that I think about a lot. But I know the first female astronauts were an inspiration to me, so maybe I will be a role model.”
Most of Whitson’s time spent on the ISS is devoted to discovering what space does to the human body. Her team is learning about the effects of fluid shifts on the eyes and how bones and muscles recover in space after exercise or injury. Its research is in preparation for upcoming visits to Mars.
“It’s important for us to understand [what space does to the human body] and make sure when we get ready to fly to Mars that we are ready for what we’re going to be exposed to. We’re learning amazing things on the space station,” says Whitson. “We’re doing a lot of really interesting science that’s definitely going to be a stepping stone.”
Whitson says that living in space is a special and unique experience because of how foreign it is. While she spends her days viewing our planet from a miraculous point of view and weightlessly floating around the station, Whitson says that what she misses most is cooking, because she gets tired of space food after a while.
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