Peggy Whitson remembers watching in wonder, as a 9-year-old girl living near Beaconsfield, in southwest Iowa, as the first astronauts walked on the moon.
But it was hearing about the first female astronauts being selected for the job in 1978 — the year Whitson graduated from high school — that made her realize something she once thought of as a “cool job” was something that was realistic and achievable as a career.
“It went from being a dream to a goal for my life,” Whitson said. “It made it seem like pursuing my passion and goal of working in science was the right thing, and it could help me eventually one day become an astronaut.”
Whitson enrolled at Iowa Wesleyan College in Mount Pleasant, where she double-majored in biology and chemistry. She then went on to graduate school, studying biochemistry, at Rice University in Houston, Texas.
From there, she started working at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.
She had turned down a prestigious fellowship in California before that and recalls learning an important lesson from that experience. “I called the guy to tell him that I was going to take the fellowship at the Johnson Space Center instead, and he told me I was making the biggest mistake of my life. It taught me that you are the only one that knows what is important to you, and you have to pursue it. I do wish I still had his phone number and remembered his name because I’d have liked to have called him from orbit,” Whitson laughed.
She’d have had plenty of opportunity to make that call, having spent plenty of time in orbit. In fact, in late 2017 Whitson set a world record for spending the most cumulative time in space, 665 days, of any U.S. astronaut or any female astronaut in the world.
But she, in an Iowa nice sort of way, is most humble about the accomplishment. “It’s all due to the whole NASA team working together,” she said. “If we are not breaking records, then we are not taking the next step. Records are important in that we keep moving on, pushing ourselves to do more. So we anticipate that my record will be broken. It will need to be in order to do Mars’ missions. All of this is just a step along the way, and I think it is significant in that we achieved another milestone.”
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Whitson said she’s amazed that we have had a human presence in space for more than 18 years. “I got to be (in space for) 665 days of that, and it’s incredible. Every day we are breaking the record for the duration of time a human is in space.”
Living in space is an experience that Whitson treasures. “It’s special because your whole life, everything you’ve learned in your life, more than you will ever know, is based on gravity,” she said. “Part of the novelty of living in space was learning to live in this completely different environment and making it eventually your home, adapting to the fact that I can be in any orientation I want, I can float across the room or the module with just the barest of touches and adapt to all of that. It’s incredibly special to have lived there long enough for zero gravity to become normal. I will say that coming back to Earth, really, gravity does suck.”
Whitson said that while on a space mission she enjoys the variety of work she gets to do, whether it is scientific research on lung cancer cells, handling a robotics operation to receive cargo from a visiting spacecraft, or going on a spacewalk (she did four spacewalks on her last nine-month mission to the space station bringing her career total to 10). “It’s all very satisfying and gratifying because every single day I am physically contributing to keeping the space program going.”
And believe it or not, Whitson said Iowa is pretty easy to spot from outer space, that is if you know when and where to look when you are traveling at 17,500 miles per hour. “If you know you are going to be heading over Iowa, you can tell by the rivers. The Mississippi and the Missouri Rivers help you find it.”
While she no longer calls Iowa her home, Whitson said spending her youth in Iowa had an important impact. “Growing up in Iowa on a farm really did a lot for my work ethic and my determination, which were skills that made a difference in my success in life.”
Determination was certainly key. Whitson pointed out that she applied to become an astronaut 10 times before being selected for the program.
“My advice to people is find that passion, what inspires and drives you and makes you want to go to work,” she said. “The journey is part of the game, so find your passion and then work to make it happen. You can’t expect it to be handed to you. You have to make things come into reality. Know that it is possible, but it might take a long time. For me, it still has been worth it, every minute. Life is a journey, and it’s a lot more fun if you are following your dream.”