DES MOINES — Iowa native Peggy Whitson keeps piling up firsts in her long career as an astronaut.
In two weeks, she will rocket into space again on her third mission to the International Space Station. She was its first female commander in 2007 and will become the first woman to ever command the space station twice. Combined with her 2002 mission, has logged the most days in space of any female in NASA history — 377.
She chuckled about another distinction Thursday during an interview with The Des Moines Register and other Iowa media broadcast on NASA TV: She will be the oldest female astronaut in the world to fly into space Nov. 14.
At age 56, she has endured 19 months of training and medical testing to ensure she is fit for the mission.
“I think it gets easier as you get older,” she said. “You know what to worry about and what not to worry about. You prioritize your effort. It's the 'work smarter, not harder' that with experience is much easier to do.”
She often credits her upbringing near tiny Beaconsfield (population 15) in southern Iowa, where parents Keith and Beth Whitson worked on the farm from sunup to sundown, for her work ethic and her independence.
“I learned to not be afraid to fix things that break,” she said from the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center in Star City, Russia.
Also, “Drive and desire was something I was raised with. It became a very important part of how I've become. I like to say I'm determined; some people would call it stubborn. It depends on your perspective.”
Whitson will launch to the space station aboard a Soyuz spacecraft from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan with Expedition 50 crewmates Oleg Novitskiy of the Russian space agency Roscosmos and astronaut Thomas Pesquet of the European Space Agency.
During the six-month mission, they will perform 250 research investigations and technology demonstrations not possible on Earth, such as an investigation on the impact of a new solid-state, light-emitting diode (LED) stem on the crew’s circadian rhythms, sleep and cognitive performance.
Whitson also said during the interview that because of her ties to molecular biology she is looking forward to working on stem cells and plant research at the station and hopes to go on a spacewalk.
She has already gone on six spacewalks, which marks yet another first.
It’s the most by any female astronaut.
Born: Feb. 9, 1960
Hometown: Beaconsfield, Iowa
Education: Mount Ayr Community High School, 1978. Bachelor's degree in biology/chemistry, Iowa Wesleyan College, 1981. Doctorate in biochemistry, Rice University, 1985.
NASA career: Began studies at the NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston. Held positions such as research biochemist, project scientist of the Shuttle-Mir Program, deputy division chief of the Medical Sciences Division and co-chair of the U.S.-Russian Mission Science Working Group. Selected as an astronaut candidate in 1996. Has held numerous leadership positions, including deputy chief of the Astronaut Office and chief of the Astronaut Corps.
Spaceflights: Her first flight was part of the Expedition 5 crew, which launched on June 5, 2002, docking with the International Space Station on June 7. Returned to Earth on Dec. 7. Was named the first NASA science officer during her stay, and conducted 21 investigations in human life sciences, microgravity sciences and commercial payloads. Performed a four-hour and 25-minute spacewalk. Logged 184 days, 22 hours and 14 minutes in space. On her second flight, which launched Oct. 10, 2007, and returned to Earth on April 19, 2008, she commanded the Expedition 16 crew and oversaw the first expansion of the International Space Station's living and working space in more than six years. Performed five spacewalks to conduct assembly and maintenance tasks. Logged 192 days in space. With the two missions, has accumulated 377 days in space, the most for any woman.
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