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CEDAR RAPIDS — Peggy Whitson, the record-breaking astronaut and Iowa native, will be the keynote speaker this October at The Gazette’s 2021 Iowa Ideas conference.
While with NASA, Whitson spent a cumulative 665 days in space — more than any other U.S. astronaut and more than any woman in the world. She currently is consulting with Axiom Space on the first commercial space flight to the International Space Station set for 2022, and is training as the backup commander.
"Compare it, for instance, to when aviation began to be commercialized,“ Whitson said in an interview.
“Initially, very few people could do it,” she continued. “Now, pretty much everybody can get on an airplane today. I hope that’s what we’re seeing is those first steps of building a destination infrastructure in lower earth orbit that will draw people there and make it more cost effective.”
Iowa Ideas is a virtual conference Oct. 14-15 to learn and explore issues and discuss big ideas that can shape the future of Iowa. It’s free, but registration at the website is required.
Whitson still calls herself an Iowan after growing up on a hog farm in Beaconsfield in south central Iowa, which had a population of 32 at the time. By the time Whitson graduated high school, she had a goal of becoming an astronaut. This was also around the time NASA astronaut Sally Ride became the first U.S. woman in space.
“I was inspired by the first female astronauts, so I know my role hopefully will inspire others to see themselves in that place as commanders, managers and leaders,” Whitson said.
Commercialized space exploration could open up doors for more medical research and could be used as a tool in manufacturing and production, Whitson said.
Whitson, who has a background in biochemistry, considered the pharmaceutical benefits of such research.
A person with osteoporosis, for instance, could loses 1 percent of bone mass per year on earth. Compare this with astronauts in space, who if they don’t exercise regularly and take proper nutrients can lose 1 percent bone mass each month.
“There’s an accelerated bone degeneration process in space, that could offer a unique opportunity to test new drugs quickly,” Whitson said. “Space can offer a unique opportunity for some types of research, and that’s just one of them.”
Another endeavor in space could be a commercial “trash collector.” Astronauts could pull satellite debris down to burn up in orbit, be refurbished or brought back home to prevent “overcrowding,” Whitson said.
“We have to make sure we’re being good stewards of space as well as earth,” she said.
As the backup commander for the Axiom commercial space flight, Whitson is starting space training in May. She will do exercises like centrifuge and zero gravity training to adopt her body to space.
Whitson graduated from Iowa Wesleyan University in Mount Pleasant in 1981, with a bachelor’s of sciences degree, double majoring in biology and chemistry. She was named TIME 100 Most Influential People in the World in 2018.
Iowa Ideas 2021
Nine tracks will be showcased throughout the Iowa Ideas 2021 conference: health care, energy and environment, education, health and human services, community development, workforce, diversity, equity and inclusion and policy and infrastructure. ITC is presenting sponsor for the conference and United Fire Group (UFG) is the keynote sponsor.
Iowa Ideas was launched in 2016 to be an inclusive gathering hub for passionate Iowans to collaborate around issues impacting the state. In 2020, restrictions of a pandemic and the derecho lea to the creation of a free, virtual conference. Over 1,200 people attended in 2020, doubling attendance from previous years.
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