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Astronaut Peggy Whitson will share her journey from Iowa farm girl to record-breaking astronaut as a keynote speaker at The Gazette’s Iowa Ideas conference at 11 a.m. Friday.
The Gazette will be streaming Whitson’s Q&A Friday. The conference is free and virtual, but registration is required.
Whitson, a former NASA astronaut and first female space station commander, will reflect on her experiences in space, her current work with Axiom Space and her training as the backup commander for the first Axiom commercial space flight to the International Space Station.
Here are five things to know about Iowa’s astronaut:
She sold chickens to pay for flying lessons
Whitson was inspired to become an astronaut when, as a 9-year-old, she watched Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin be the first people to walk on the moon in 1969.
The next year, her father got his private pilot’s license.
“I got to go on my first airplane ride and see the Earth from above,” Whitson said. “It’s an amazing perspective at 10 years old.”
This also inspired Whitson to learn how to fly about 10 years later. She sold chickens for $2 each to pay for flying lessons.
“You can translate an inspiration into action and really make something happen in your life,” Whitson said.
She was told she was making ‘the biggest mistake’ of her life
When Whitson was in college, she was introduced to James Van Allen, a space scientist at the University of Iowa, who is known for his 1958 discovery of radiation belts — known as Van Allen belts — that circle the Earth.
Whitson hoped Van Allen could give her advice on how to become an astronaut.
"That astronaut thing is just a flash in the pan,“ Whitson recalls Van Allen telling her. ”You need to get a real job, a real career like engineering or astrophysics.“
After getting her Ph.D. in biochemistry, Whitson turned down a research position to pursue her dreams at NASA.
Some said she was “making the biggest mistake” of her life, she said. “I had a couple of prestigious folks tell me this was not the right thing to do. I persevered anyway.”
She grew soybeans in space
Whitson has done hundreds of experiments in space — including growing soybeans.
While she was in space growing soybeans, her dad was in Iowa growing soybeans in the Earth.
“In space, the soybeans grew up to the light at the top of the container, and then turned around and went back down because they didn’t have anywhere else to go.”
It takes only 8.5 minutes to get to space
Flying into space takes only about eight-and-a-half minutes, Whitson said.
You go from zero to 17,500 miles per hour in that time.
Whitson has been to space three times — twice for six- month missions and once for a nine-month mission.
Being launched into space by a rocket is “quite impressive,” she said.
“There’s a lot of vibrations initially, and then when the solid rocket boosters ignite, there is no doubt you are going to go somewhere.
“Getting on board the space station feels like coming back home again.”
The best — and worst — space food
When in space, Whitson eats foods that have been dehydrated and then are rehydrated. Things like oatmeal and mac and cheese “work pretty good,” she said.
“The veggies that are dehydrated and rehydrated — those are kind of squishy,” she said.
Her favorite space food is chicken fajitas. “I never got tired of it in the 665 days I was up there.”
How to register
The annual Iowa Ideas Conference explores issues and discusses big ideas that can shape the future of Iowa. The conference, virtual this year, is free, but registration at the website is required at iowaideas.com.
Iowa Ideas was launched in 2016 to be a hub where Iowans could collaborate on issues affecting the state.
In 2020, pandemic restrictions and the derecho recovery moved the conference online, with 1,200 people attending, doubling attendance from previous years.
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