Peggy Whitson has always been a team player, both as a teenager on the Mount Ayr High School’s basketball court and as a record-breaking astronaut aboard the International Space Station.
She wasn’t the most talented athlete on the high school team, recalled James Saville, her assistant coach. But she made up for it with an incredible work ethic.
If the team needed someone — a guard, for example, though Whitson played forward — she would step up.
“I’m sure that’s why she’s been so successful as an astronaut,” said Saville, 71, who taught at Whitson’s southwestern Iowa high school from 1969 to 2005. “She’s going to do what’s best for the project, not just what’s best for Peggy Whitson.”
That moral fiber led the Robert D. and Billie Ray Center to choose Whitson as its 2018 recipient of the Robert D. Ray Pillar of Character Award, its highest honor. She will accept the award Friday at a ceremony in West Des Moines.
In an interview with The Gazette, she said she believes her childhood in Iowa instilled in her a strong moral code.
“Work ethic is probably my No. 1 value and No. 1 attribute,” said Whitson, who grew up on a farm in Beaconsfield. “I think a straightforward, honest approach to people, and respect for other people.”
The team spirit she showed in high school still appears in her work as an astronaut.
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“Even if my job for the day is cleaning the vents or fixing the toilet, it still feels good to be a part of the space program and advancing exploration,” Whitson, 58, said.
The Pillar of Character award is given to an Iowan who serves as a good role model, according to Ray center, and the recipient is determined by the center’s National Advisory Council. Last year, the honor went to Ashton Kutcher.
“Peggy was inspired at an early age in Iowa to dream big,” former Gov. Robert D. Ray said in a statement. “And she continues to be guided by her Iowa values as she puts her character into action every day as one of the most decorated astronauts of all time.”
In her career, Whitson has spent a total of 665 days in space, the record for any American. Her longest extraterrestrial stretch lasted 337 days, the most for any U.S. woman at the time.
“I’ve been there long enough that it’s my second home,” she said.
When she’s Earthside, Whitson often visits schools in the Midwest, where she talks to young students about how she went from a girl on the farm to the first woman to command the International Space Station.
“There’s a greater chance of them living their dream, maybe it seems a little bit more realistic, if they hear it from me,” she said.
From her story, she hopes students take away the importance of finding their own passion, working for it and challenging themselves.
After furthering her education at Iowa Wesleyan University in Mount Pleasant and Rice University in Houston, Whitson worked as a biochemist for NASA and, in 1995, took on the role of co-chair of the U.S.-Russian Mission Science Group.
At the time, the move felt “like more than I should say yes to,” she said.
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“I think it’s somewhat an inherent insecurity in what I think I can do,” Whitson said. “I had to overcome those doubts, those self-doubts, and call myself to try it anyway.”
But the role gave her valuable experience in leadership, teamwork and negotiation — skills that came in handy when she was selected as an astronaut candidate the next year.
When she visits schoolchildren, she emphasizes those moments when she pushed herself.
Kids are always full of questions, she said — about everything, down to how to go to the bathroom in space.
“That’s always the question they want to ask first, but it takes them some courage to ask,” she said. (Astronauts “rely on suction,” she added, “good aim, and lots of wet wipes.”)
But mostly, Whitson believes children look at her and begin to envision themselves in space, too.
“I hope they see that dreams are possible,” she said. “I hope with my story they understand also that you have to work for those dreams to make them happen.”
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