Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Peggy Whitson - astronaut

"Raised on an Iowa farm, but grew up to be a commander of a spaceship." If you're a sci-fi nerd like me, this story sounds very familiar. But in this case, I don't mean Captain James T. Kirk.

I'm talking about Peggy Whitson, biochemistry researcher, NASA astronaut, and former NASA Chief Astronaut. She was the first woman to command the International Space Station when she arrived as part of Expedition 16, on October 10, 2007. After her two trips to space, she's NASA's most experienced female astronaut, with more than 376 days in space. And she's going back again in November 2016 as part of Expedition 50/51. At 56, she will be the oldest woman to travel in space.

Peggy was born on February 9, 1960, in Mount Ayr, Iowa, and grew up on a farm nearby. She learned all about determination and hard work watching her parents as they got up before dawn every day to keep the farm running. When she was nine her class watched the live footage of Neil Armstrong taking his first steps on the moon. She was moonstruck. Or, at the very least, space-struck. In 1969, it seemed unlikely that a little girl could become an astronaut, but by the time she graduated from high school things had changed. The same year she received her diploma and looked out at her options was the same year NASA began accepting women. "[A]t that point I thought: this is going to be something I'm going to try and do."

She did more than try. She studied biology and chemistry at Iowa Wesleyan College. Her advisor there tried to talk her into attending medical school. When she explained that she really wanted to be an astronaut, her advisor couldn't dissuade her, and only suggested she still visit with physicist James Van Allen who'd worked with the space program and was now a professor at the University of Iowa, with the thought that even if he was able to talk her out of it she could still visit the medical college there while visiting. And he did try to by telling her he believed humans would be replaced by robots when it came to space exploration.

Undaunted, Peggy moved to Houston where she earned her PhD in biochemistry at Rice University, and then worked at Johnson Space Center in a number of positions, but most notably as a biomedical researcher, and then as the project scientist for the Shuttle-Mir Program. All the while she continued to apply to NASA for the astronaut program. It took her ten years, but in April 1996 her dreams of becoming an astronaut candidate came true. She was selected as part of the group that would begin two years of grueling training and evaluation in August 1996. Once she completed that, she began a period of serving on a variety of terrestrial tasks and nautical crew missions as she waited to learn whether she would be sent into space.

She was finally able to realize her dream of space exploration in 2002, when she spent six months at the ISS as part of Expedition 5. What was it like to be in space after working so hard? "What amazed me the first time in space is, 'Oh my gosh, so much color and texture.' I don't know if it has to do with the clarity because there are no particulates in the air, but you see so much."

As part of that mission, she got to spend over 4 hours on a space walk. "Outside on a spacewalk takes it up another notch. You are traveling 17,500 miles an hour across the planet. You are looking down with views going past you. It's like being a bird maybe, the perspective of flying over the Earth."

She went up again, this time on the Soyuz, as part of Expedition 16 in 2008. On the return there was a problem with propulsion module, and to compensate they needed to come in at a steeper than normal trajectory. During reentry, the crew had to endure forces that topped out at 8 g for almost two minutes. But that wasn't even the worst part of that trip. During the mission, one of their solar arrays was torn, and they had to devise a makeshift solution that would keep it attached and functioning, delivering power to the vehicle. Without it they would be in serious trouble. "My dad, a farmer, always said you can fix just about anything with a 'number 2 wire and a pair of pliers.' It seemed to me like we were testing the limits of his philosophy for this one!"

Since 2008 Peggy has continued working with NASA. She was the first woman as well as the first non-pilot to serve as Chief Astronaut, the highest ranking position for astronauts at NASA. In 2012, at the age when other people are thinking about retirement, Peggy was put back on active flight status.

She's not done with space yet. In November 2016, she will be back in space again, this time as part of Expedition 50/51. Because she's a badass. Seriously.

You can follow her on Tumblr, Twitter, and Facebook, and check out several of her NASA journal entries here, here, and here. And below you can watch her video showing how astronauts suit up for spacewalks.

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