Peggy Whitson, First Female Commander of the International Space Station
NASA Astronaut Peggy Whitson is breaking records (and ceilings) for women in space. Watch as Peggy shares her childhood dream of becoming an astronaut, her many rejections from NASA, the persistence that led her to the International Space Station, and what it feels like to break record after record for both men and women in space.
First Female Commander of the International Space Station
NASA Astronaut Peggy Whitson is breaking records (and ceilings) for women in space. In this video, she talks about her dreams of becoming an astronaut as a young girl, her many rejections from NASA, the persistence that led her to the international space station, her first space walk, and what it feels like to break record after record for both men and women in space.
Peggy Whitson, First Female Commander of the International Space Station
Peggy A. Whitson (Ph.D.) to date (August 22,2017), has spent 655 days in space, holding the record as the oldest astronaut at 57-years-old and the record for most time any American has spent in space. On October 10, 2007, Whitson became the first woman to command the International Space Station and launched with Expedition 16 crewmates on the Soyuz TMA-11. On March 30, 2017 she performed her eighth spacewalk, the most ever performed by a woman and on that walk she raised the record from 40 total hours accumulated by a woman spacewalking to 50 hours.
She is currently part of Expedition 50/51, which is her third long-duration mission to the International Space Station. Whitson and her crewmates, Cosmonaut Oleg Novitskiy and ESA astronaut Thomas Pesquet launched on November 17, 2016. The Iowa native completed two six-month tours of duty aboard the station for Expedition 5 in 2002, and as the station commander for Expedition 16 in 2008.
Peggy received a Bachelor of Science in Biology/Chemistry from Iowa Wesleyan College in 1981 and a Doctorate in Biochemistry from Rice University in 1985. Following completion of her graduate work, she continued at Rice University as a Robert A. Welch Postdoctoral Fellow until October 1986. Following this position, she began her studies at NASA Johnson Space Center (JSC), Houston, Texas, as a National Research Council Resident Research Associate. From April 1988 until September 1989, Whitson served as the Supervisor for the Biochemistry Research Group at KRUG International, a medical sciences contractor at NASA-JSC. From 1991 to 1997, Whitson was invited to be an Adjunct Assistant Professor in the Department of Internal Medicine and Department of Human Biological Chemistry and Genetics at University of Texas Medical Branch, Galveston, Texas. In 1997, Whitson began a position as Adjunct Assistant Professor at Rice University in the Maybee Laboratory for Biochemical and Genetic Engineering.
- I was hanging in my sleeping bag on the wall of my sleep station, and I had gotten on the computer and printed off a couple of things that I needed for the day and floated through the lab, and I'm like I live in space. It was like this is my place of work. This is phenomenal! I was nine years old when the first guys walked on the moon and our folks put us to bed relatively early, but woke us back up so that we could watch that but I thought wow, cool job. I had a great mom who encouraged me to do whatever I wanted. I said something about being an airline pilot and my sister said you can't be an airline pilot, you can only be the flight attendant. My mom said no, that's not true. You can be whatever you want. It wasn't until I graduated high school in 1978 when they selected the first female astronauts that I think becoming an astronaut really became a goal of mine. Of course Sally Ride was influential in developing my image of what a female astronaut was. It became much more motivating to see that there were women there, that women could do this job. I didn't tell a lot of people that that's what I wanted to do because I thought you know they'd think I was just dreaming something that's not even possible. Bob Cabana who was chief of the astronaut office at the time called me, and so I was expecting a rejection and he's trying to make small talk with me and I'm like I don't have time for this, just tell me I didn't make it. But he's like would you like to come and work for me? And I went yes!
- [Narrator] Three new residents headed for the International Space Station. Commander Valery Korzun and flight engineers Peggy Whitson and Sergei Chekov.
- As a woman doing space walks is more challenging mostly because the suits are sized bigger than the average female, and yes it is risky. You're going 17,500 miles an hour around the Earth. Some people have a sense that they're actually falling off of the station. I never had that sensation. I opened the hatch and I was just like wow! I was going out there so fast. It was so beautiful, so incredible. I was commander of the station and then the second female shuttle commander actually arrived to the station, Pam Melroy, so we had the first two female commanders on orbit at the same time. One of the Russian bosses said it was because there were two women on board, and that was in spite of the fact that the previous crew, which was all male, had had the same problem. I've been on three selection boards now. We don't have enough applicants in the female categories. That's why one of the big pushes for NASA is this STEM education primarily focused on young girls because we want more women to understand that yes, you can do these jobs too. You just have to get the right education and training so that you can apply and make it happen.
- I'm going to turn command of the International Space Station over to Dr. Peggy Whitson. She now becomes the first two-time female commander of the International Space Station.
- I've had great jobs at NASA, but the most satisfying job I've ever had is being a member of a crew on board the space station. Every day, every task I felt like I was contributing to space exploration very directly and it's one of the great wonders.
- Well I think the thing that appeals to me about being an astronaut, but working for NASA in general is the exploration part. I really get excited about, not only exploration of space, but any types of expeditions, doing things in a new and unusual environment, it all appealed to me. And the technical challenges, the physical challenges, all those pieces appeal to me about being an astronaut.
- During my second expedition, probably one of the most memorable moments was Yuri Malenchenko; he was the Russian who was doing a spacewalk with me and we were moving the pressurized mating adapter from the very front of the station. After we'd done the spacewalk we were inside talking around the dinner table that evening. He said it was like the movie Titanic, where the two of us were standing in the front of the boat with our hands out, except there wasn't any wind blowing through our hair. It was really neat to be traveling at 17,500 miles an hour. One way you have this incredible view of the Earth, looking out in one direction, and then you look back and you see this incredible structure that we built here in orbit. And it's just amazing.
- I did a spacewalk on my first expedition, and it was in a Russian spacesuit. And so, the Russians of course did a spacewalk with a female way before the United States ever did, but they'd never actually repeated or done it again. And so, I think it's kind of notable that I was the second female to do a spacewalk in their spacesuit. To me it was interesting to be that person. And then going out on a spacewalk is like walking out onto a street, and in bright sunlight. And that's much different from what you see, what you feel and sense. The colors look so much richer, so much clearer, so much brighter. They have more texture. And so it's just an incredible stepping up of sensation. So it's beautiful, beautiful.
- My first mission was six months long. I was one of the first crew members who was selected to fly a long duration mission without having flown a short duration mission. I was so excited, because I'm like, "I don't have to leave in 10 days; I get to live here." The excitement is there and what really surprised me was that even after all this years of anticipation of what I expected it to be in space, everything I expected or hoped it would be was superseded within three days. Everything. It was like this is so much better than I could have ever imagined. So it was just a phenomenal experience. Every bit of it was more than I could have ever dreamed or hoped for.
- My advisor in college, she wanted me to go to medical school and she said well I'll introduce you to James Van Ellen up at University of Iowa if you go look at the medical school, and so I agreed to go with her because I was interested in meeting Dr. Van Ellen, the first individual who discovered radiation belts around the Earth, and so I was real excited about meeting him because he had something to do with space, but he told me you don't really want to be an astronaut because this is going to be just a phase we're going through. It's all going to be robotic and there's not really going to be astronauts in the future, so I wouldn't really put my eggs in that basket. I ignored it, but it was still great to see space hardware and be in his lab and see what was going on.
- During Expedition 16, so we had the first two female commanders on orbit at the same time, Pam Melroy. It was a real exciting time. Mostly because it was a coincidence. Her flight was supposed to be over by the time I arrived. And because the shuttle launch slipped, I ended up launching on the Soyuz and arriving before her. So coincidentally we were both on orbit at the same time. I don't think I understood the impact necessarily. When I got back, I had received in the mail a cartoon, and that cartoon had a little girl who was looking at the computer, and it said, "Two female space commanders", and her mom was holding up a princess costume, and she says, "No, I wanna go for this Halloween dressed up as a female mission commander." And so, that was interesting to me, to realize I'd actually had an impact that even showed up in a cartoon.
- It's interesting. As an international mission, you get some interesting perspectives on, you know, a female going to orbit. So, in Russia, before my launch, we launched from Kazakhstan, and they gave me a whip, which in Kazakhstan is the symbol of the leader of the group got the whip, and so I received several whipsas gifts during my preparation for that flight. It was interesting, just the different cultures, the different perspectives.
- I got my PhD in biochemistry at Rice University, in part because Rice was close to the Johnson Space Center, and I was offered a postdoctoral fellowship at the Salk Institute, which had a very prestigious laboratory and I called up that professor to tell him that I was going to take the fellowship at the Johnson Space Center, he said, "That's the biggest mistake you're making in your life." I knew it was a very prestigious offer, but I sure wished I'd had his phone number, I woulda called him from the Space Station and told him it wasn't really a big mistake at all for me. I ended up where I wanted to be.
- I never really thought too much about the fact that I was a female and applying to be an astronaut. I assumed that I would get in based on whether or not I was qualified to be an astronaut. Obviously, they look at hundreds of applicants, thousands, in fact, and it's surprising to me that I might get picked out of that bunch to even get an interview, let alone be selected as an astronaut. But I always assumed that gender wasn't part of the equation, and I don't know how much of that is really reality, but I was never worried about being a woman applying to be an astronaut.
- Using the diaper actually is kind of challenging to figure out. You spend a lot a years trying not to do that, urinate in your pants, and so, when you actually have to, it actually is a little mental switch that you have to overcome and actually make that happen.