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CEDAR RAPIDS — Iowa native and astronaut Peggy Whitson is paving the way for commercial space expedition as commander of the Axiom Space flight planned for fall 2022.
Whitson, a former NASA astronaut and first female commander of the International Space Station, reflected in a speech aired Friday at The Gazette’s annual Iowa Ideas conference on her experiences in space, her current work with the private Axiom Space firm based in Texas and her training as the backup commander for the first Axiom commercial space flight to the space station.
Whitson, 61, grew up in Beaconsfield in south central Iowa and graduated from Iowa Wesleyan College in Mount Pleasant and then Rice University in Texas. While with NASA, she spent a cumulative 665 days in space — more than any other U.S. astronaut and more than any woman in the world.
It will take two days for the Axiom mission to reach the International Space Station, where Whitson and her crew will stay for up to 10 days. Seeing Earth from space is “dramatic,” she said.
“When you’re trying to construct another place away from planet Earth, you realize how much Earth is like a spaceship and needs to be protected,” Whitson said.
Whitson said if she had stayed with NASA, she wouldn’t have been able to fly again because she reached the agency’s limit for radiation exposure. “I didn’t anticipate the commercial industry to come back soon enough for me to have the opportunity to fly again,” she said.
Astronauts train underwater
Whitson prepares for space by training underwater, which simulates weightlessness. She’s completed a 14-day mission underwater doing daily “spacewalks” --- long dives, she said.
The crew in training practiced assembling equipment they would later assemble in space at the International Space Station. All this training helps Whitson stay calm under pressure.
“It gives you a sense of security if a bad day happens,” Whitson said. “A bad day can still happen that I can’t survive.”
When doing a spacewalk, astronauts are tethered to the International Space Station. They also wear a “mini jet pack” in case a tether breaks so they could fly back to the station. “No one has ever had to use that,” Whitson said.
Spacewalks are exhausting and take hours.
It takes two hours just to put on the pressurized spacesuit. An astronaut will then spend six to eight hours doing the actual spacewalk, during which time he or she is working with tools that require a lot of strength to move in the pressurized suit.
“Every motion with your hands requires strength. It’s pretty exhausting on your upper body,” Whitson said.
Finally, once back on board the space station, it takes a full hour to get out of the spacesuit again.
Adapting to zero gravity
If you lose something in space, it’s often not where you initially think it is, Whitson said. Tools are stuck to the wall with Velcro to keep them from floating off. If a tool is knocked off its Velcro, Whitson said, your brain automatically tell you to look for it at your feet “even if your feet are on the ceiling.” But without gravity, objects don’t fall like they do on earth.
“If you lose something, turn 90 degrees because it’s usually right there in front of you. It’s just your brain isn’t willing to see it,” she said.
A trick Whitson likes to play on new astronauts in space is asking them to throw something to her from across the module. “It will hit the ceiling because he’s planning a trajectory based on Earth gravity,” she said.
When Whitson got home after her first space flight, she recalled how she was trying to throw a tissue away in to a trash can no more than a foot away. “It dropped straight to the floor because I had stopped correcting for gravity,” Whitson said. “Being adaptable is part of what it is to live in zero gravity, and an important characteristic for all of us in our life in general.”
Motivation to stay fit
While in space, Whitson works to stay fit. Bone density deteriorates faster because of the lack of gravity. In one year, an older woman will lose 1 percent of her bone mass on Earth. In space, it only takes one month to lose 1 percent bone mass without exercise.
“We are very motivated to exercise in space,” Whitson said.
Astronauts can’t weight lift in space, however, because there is no weight without gravity. Instead, they use a restive exercise device that simulates weight lifting, Whitson said.
There is also a treadmill, which astronauts have to be harnessed to “or your head would hit the ceiling,” and a cycling machine “except you’re floating, so you don’t have to sit on the seat,” Whitson said.
Being a nerd is cool
Whitson wants to see more women in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). That starts with keeping girls excited about STEM in high school.
“I’ve been on a crusade to try to make being a nerd cool,” Whitson said. “For parents and mentors out there, you’ve got to help keep those science dreams alive, so they will continue that pursuit in the future.”
“We do need to encourage our young ladies to push themselves and challenge themselves in science,” Whitson said.
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