Iowa-born astronaut Peggy Whitson, who holds the U.S. record for most cumulative time in space, retired from NASA on Friday.
Whitson, 58, was in Iowa in April to receive the 2018 Robert D. Ray Pillar of Character Award. Iowa lawmakers also honored her during that visit.
“Work ethic is probably my No. 1 value and No. 1 attribute,” Whitson told The Gazette during that visit. “I think (also) a straightforward, honest approach to people, and respect for other people.
“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, who grew up on a farm in Beaconsfield in southwest Iowa, graduated from Iowa Wesleyan College in Mount Pleasant in 1981, adding a doctorate in biochemistry at Rice University in Houston in 1985.
Whitson started at NASA in 1986 as a National Research Council resident research associate at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. She served in a number of scientific roles, including project scientist for the Shuttle-Mir Program and was co-chair of the U.S.-Russian Mission Science Working Group, before her selection to the astronaut corps in 1996.
“Peggy Whitson is a testament to the American spirit,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said in a statement. “Her determination, strength of mind, character, and dedication to science, exploration, and discovery are an inspiration to NASA and America. We owe her a great debt for her service and she will be missed. We thank her for her service to our agency and country.”
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As an astronaut, Whitson completed three long-duration missions to the International Space Station, setting records on each.
She made her first trip in 2002 as part of Expedition 5, during which she took part in 21 science investigations and became NASA’s first space station science officer.
In 2008, Whitson returned on Expedition 16 and became the first female commander of the space station.
During her most recent mission, spanning Expeditions 50, 51 and 52 from November 2016 to September 2017, Whitson became the first woman to command the space station twice (Expedition 51).
She also claimed the title for most spacewalks by a woman — 10 spacewalks totaling 60 hours and 21 minutes — and set the record for most time spent in space by a U.S. astronaut at 665 days — the equivalent of a round trip to Mars.
Whitson’s time on the ground at NASA was no less groundbreaking. She served as chief of the astronaut corps from 2009 to 2012, becoming both the first woman to hold the position and the first non-military astronaut corps chief.
“It has been the utmost honor to have Peggy Whitson represent our entire NASA Flight Operations team,” said Brian Kelly, director of flight operations at Johnson Space Center. “She set the highest standards for human spaceflight operations, as well as being an outstanding role model for women and men in America and across the globe. Godspeed, Peg.”
Whitson’s complete biography is at https://www.nasa.gov/astronauts/biographies/peggy-a-whitson