In 2002, Peggy Whitson became the first astronaut to be named science officer of the International Space Station (ISS). She lived aboard the station for six months, for a total of 184 days and 22 hours in space, setting a record for the longest stay in space by any American astronaut who hadn't been in space before. A biochemist by training, Whitson's duties as science officer aboard the ISS included conducting experiments in physics, medicine, and biology. She also participated in the ongoing construction of the space station, installing structural components using the station's remote manipulator system, which she operated from the inside of the station. She also conducted a four-and-a-half hour spacewalk to install micrometeoroid shielding on the space station's exterior. In 2017, Whitson broke the record for longest time spent in space clocking in 665 days total.
Whitson was born in 1960 in Mount Ayr, Iowa. She grew up on a pig farm near the town of Beaconsfield. Her parents, Keith and Beth Whitson, remained farmers throughout Whitson's training as a scientist and astronaut and after her return home from the ISS. Whitson was nine years old in the summer of 1969 when humans first set foot on the moon. Watching the event on television, she decided then and there that she wanted to be an astronaut. At the time, it was impossible for a woman to become an American astronaut--only men were admitted into the astronaut corps. But that changed in 1978, when the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) made its first selection of female astronauts. Whitson was then a senior in high school, and she knew that her dream could become a reality.
Realizing also that an advanced degree in science was one ticket into the astronaut corps, Whitson went on to Iowa Wesleyan College to study biology and chemistry. After graduating from Wesleyan, she attended Rice University to work toward a Ph.D. in biochemistry. Rice, from Whitson's point of view, was ideally located--in Houston, Texas, home of NASA's Johnson Space Center and Mission Control.
After earning her Ph.D. in biochemistry in 1985, Whitson spent ten years as a NASA scientist on the ground, helping to train NASA and Russian astronauts both in the United States and in Russia. Each year from 1986 (the year that the space shuttle Challenger exploded on launch, killing all seven astronauts on board) onward, Whitson applied to the astronaut corps.
Finally, in May of 1996, her persistence paid off when she was selected for the astronaut corps--one of an elite group of just 119 astronauts. And, six years later, on June 5, 2002, Whitson rocketed into space for the first time aboard the space shuttle Endeavour along with Russian cosmonauts Valeri Korzun, a veteran of previous missions to the Russian space station Mir, and Sergei Treschev, who, like Whitson, was a rookie. Together they would take over operation of the ISS from the three astronauts already there, staying for a total of six months in space.
With Whitson and her Russian crewmates on the shuttle were three American astronauts and one French astronaut who would help them make the transition to the ISS. Since this was Whitson's first time in space, it was unusual that she was asked to stay so long at the ISS; most rookie astronauts cut their teeth on shorter shuttle missions. But Whitson's 10-year association with NASA before becoming an astronaut allowed her to skip right past that usual requirement.
After a two-day journey, the space shuttle arrived at the 240-mile-high orbiting space station, and exchanged crewmembers with the ISS. Whitson became the first American on the station with a Ph.D., the first without a military background, and only the second woman to become a resident of the station.
In one of her letters home, Whitson described her first view of the Earth from space, shortly after Endeavour's launch. "To say that my first sight of the Earth from orbit was breathtaking or magnificent still seems such a paltry way to describe what I saw and felt.... The colors were so vibrant that they seemed to have a previously unseen texture. I would liken the feeling to having someone turn on the lights after having lived in semi-darkness for years. I had never really seen anything quite so clearly or with so much color!"
A high point of Whitson's stay aboard the ISS came on August 16, 2002, when she climbed into a Russian spacesuit and accompanied crewmate Korzun on a spacewalk outside the station. Her job on the spacewalk was to help Korzun install micrometeroid shields on the outside of the station, but her assigned tasks were momentarily forgotten when she floated out of the airlock and beheld the awe-inspiring beauty of a sunrise as the station sped around the curve of the Earth. As she said in one of her letters home, "I previously compared the view of being in space to having lived in semidarkness for several years and having someone turn on the lights. Well, the view from my helmet, continuing the same analogy, would be like going outside on a sunny, clear day after having lived in semidarkness for years!" Whitson and Korzun experienced three sunrises during their spacewalk as the ISS orbited the Earth three times in four hours, traveling at a speed of 17,500 miles per hour.
In September of 2002, Whitson was officially named the station's first science officer. From then on, said Sean O'Keefe, chief administrator of NASA, each succeeding space station crew would have one designated science officer. O'Keefe said that making science a priority on the orbiting outpost would allow NASA to "utilize it better," according to CNN.com.
The comparison of Whitson to the fictional character Spock, the science officer aboard the starship Enterprise on the Star Trek television series, was inevitable, and Whitson began to receive "an incredible amount of Star Trek/Mr. Spock-related e-mail" aboard the station, as she said in one of her letters home, published on the NASA website and in the Houston Chronicle. The association did not bother her though; she even signed the letter "Live long and prosper," a salutation used by Mr. Spock in the series.
Whitson was 42 years old at the time of her promotion to science officer. Her title merely put into name what was already fact--she was the first research scientist to live aboard the station. At the time of her appointment to science officer, she had been on the station for four months, and had two more months to go in her stay there. While the total length of her stay in space did not set a NASA record, it was the longest that a rookie astronaut had spent in space. She followed in the footsteps of Shannon Lucid, another American biochemist, who had spent six months on the Russian Mir space station in 1996, and who now serves as NASA chief scientist.
The ISS, still under construction at the time of Whitson's stay, could hold only three long-term residents, sharply limiting the time that could be spent purely on science--the crew's main duties were to keep the station and its myriad of systems running smoothly. The initial design for the station had called for a crew of six to seven astronauts, but budget cuts at both NASA and its Russian counterpart, which was an equal partner with NASA in the venture, forced the indefinite postponement of the planned expansion. Even so, the station, in its configuration at the time of Whitson's stay, had about as much living space as a three-bedroom house.
Since inhabitants of the space station are weightless, it is very important that they exercise regularly so that they do not lose bone mass and their ability to readapt to Earth's gravity when they return. Whitson's daily exercise regimen included a one-to-two-hour workout on the station's stationary bicycle and other equipment that could provide a workout in zero gravity.
Life in orbit required other adjustments as well. Since there are no laundry facilities on the ISS, the inhabitants must wear their clothing until they are too dirty to do so comfortably. They then pack them into an empty supply capsule attached to the station, along with all of their other garbage, and simply jettison it all, to burn up in Earth's atmosphere upon reentry.
After a record (for a rookie American astronaut) six-month stay in space, it was time for Whitson and her two crewmates to return home. On December 2, 2002, Whitson, Korzun, and Treschev floated aboard Endeavour, which had returned to retrieve them, for the return to Earth. Whitson, although craving fresh greens and a steak after six months of eating bagged and dehydrated food, found that her experience in space was every bit as exciting as she had imagined it would be.
As Whitson said in one of her letters home, published on the NASA website, "As my time aboard the station nears conclusion, I have lots of mixed feelings about leaving. While I, of course, want to see all of my family and friends, it is hard to let go of the idea of living here.... Being here, living here, is something that I will probably spend the rest of my life striving to find just the right words to try and encompass and convey just a fraction of what makes our endeavors in space so special and essential."
During her final days in space, Whitson was also struck by the power of the international cooperation that had made the space station possible. No less than 16 nations had contributed to the construction of the station, and Whitson saw that spirit of cooperation as one of the most important aspects of living and working on the station. "There is no way that I can imagine," she said, "especially after seeing our planet from this vantage point, that bringing our cultures closer together and proliferating understanding in our differences as well as our similarities, can be a bad endeavor." Whitson and her crewmates were replaced aboard the ISS by American astronauts Ken Bowersox and Don Petit and Russian cosmonaut Nikolai Budarin. Bowersox took over Whitson's role as science officer aboard the station.
On February 1, 2003, two months after Whitson left the ISS, the space shuttle Columbia broke up in the upper atmosphere as it returned from a mission in space. All seven astronauts aboard were killed. Following the disaster, NASA grounded its fleet of remaining shuttles indefinitely. It also canceled all public appearances by astronauts, including Whitman's scheduled visits to classrooms in her home state of Iowa.
The residents of the ISS at the time of the Columbia disaster were the same astronauts who had replaced Whitson and her Russian crewmates two months previously. Originally scheduled to return home aboard a NASA space shuttle, the ISS crew would be forced to return via the three-person Russian Soyuz lifeboat attached to the station. Future ISS residents would be brought to the station and returned via other Soyuz spacecraft. However, the limitations of the Soyuz meant that only two inhabitants could occupy the station at any given time--the bare minimum required to maintain the station's systems, leaving little or no time for science aboard the station.
Whitson embarked on her second mission in October of 2007. Expedition 16 lasted six months, with Whitston serving as the station commander. The crew returned on a Soyuz space ship. Whitston's return journey nearly ended in disaster when one of the shuttle's modules failed to separate upon reentry. This caused the spacecraft to slam into Earth's atmosphere at an astounding five miles per second. The craft also entered in the wrong orientation. The module eventually detached, but the shuttle's continued at a high speed of descent, subjecting the crew to a force of gravity that was eight times higher than Earth's. The shuttle landed far from its target, but the crew was unharmed. On this expedition, Whitson had logged another 192 days in space.
In 2009, Whitson was named chief of the Astronaut Corps. Her responsibilities included mission preparation, on-orbit support of ISIS crews, and ensuring support for heavy launch and commercially-provided transport vehicles. Whitson served in this position until 2012.
Whitson joined NASA's Expedition 50/51 crew in 2016, launching on November 17, 2016, and returning on September 3, 2017. Her expedition included participating in hundreds of scientific experiments and engaging in several spacewalks. In April of 2017, she broke the record for longest amount of time spent in space by a NASA astronaut, accum7ulating a total of 665 days in space. In 2018, Time magazine named Whitson one of its 100 most influential people in the world. In June of 2018, Whitson announced her retirement from NASA.
Born February 9, 1960, in Mount Ayr, IA; daughter of Keith (a farmer) and Beth (a farmer) Whitson; married Clarence F. Sams. Education: Iowa Wesleyan College, B.S., 1981; Rice University, Ph.D., 1985.
Postdoctoral fellow at Rice University, 1985-86; National Research Council Resident Research Associate, NASA Johnson Space Center, 1986-88; supervisor for Biochemical Research Group at KRUG International, a NASA medical sciences contractor, 1988-89; admitted into the NASA astronaut corps, 1996; flew to the International Space Station (ISS) aboard space shuttle Endeavour for a six-month stay, 2002; became the first astronaut designated science officer of the ISS, 2002; station commander of Expedition 16, 2008; record 665 days spent in space, 2018.
Graduated Summa Cum Laude from Iowa Wesleyan College, 1981; NASA Sustained Superior Performance Award, 1990; NASA Certificate of Commendation 1994; NASA Exceptional Service Medal, 1995; NASA Silver Snoopy Award, 1995; NASA Space Act Board Award, 1995; NASA Tech Brief Award 1995; American Astronautical Society Randolph Lovelace II Award, 1995; Group Achievement Award for Shuttle-Mir Program, 1996; NASA Space Act Board Award, 1998.
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