Peggy Whitson -- NASA Astronaut and Biochemist
First female commander of the International Space Station; veteran of six space walks and set records among American astronauts for spending the most time in space
Peggy Whitson was born in 1960 in rural Mount Ayr, Iowa where her dad was a farmer. In her own words: "As a child, I saw a lot more hogs growing up than I saw people. The closest town had only 32 people living in it, so my high school was consolidated for the whole county. We had around 300 students in my high school, so it was a very small environment that I grew up in."
Encouraged by her parents who often reminded her that she could do whatever she set her mind on, Peggy expressed an early interest in science and space flight. After high school, she entered the small college of Iowa Wesleyan in Mount Pleasant, from which she graduated in three years in the double major of biology and chemistry before going on to graduate school at Rice University in Houston, Texas. There, she earned her Ph.D. In biochemistry.
She soon began working at Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, as a National Research Council Resident Research Associate. From 1992 to 1995, she served as project scientist for the Shuttle-Mir Program and, until her selection as an astronaut candidate in 1996.
In the interim, she was also an Adjunct Assistant Professor in the Department of Internal Medicine, and Department of Human Biological Chemistry and Genetics at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, Texas, and in 1997, she began a position as Adjunct Assistant Professor at Rice University in the Maybee Laboratory for Biochemical and Genetic Engineering.
Why She's Important: NASA astronaut and research biochemist Peggy Whitson, as a result of her two long-duration missions (of a total of 376 days) to the International Space, became NASA's most experienced astronaut. And her total of six career space walks and their combined duration of 39 hours and 46 minutes were records for a female astronaut, and places her 20th among all space flyers in this category.
In her second mission to the International Space Station in October 2007 with Expedition 16, she served as the first female commander of the ISS. As commander, Peggy supervised and directed a significant expansion of the living and working space on the ISS, including the installation of components made by European, Japanese, and Canadian space agencies. During this six-month mission she also performed five space walks to carry out maintenance and assembly tasks.
After spending nearly 192 days in space during her historic mission, Peggy returned to Earth aboard Soyuz TMA-11 on April 19, 2008. The crew of Soyuz TMA-11 had a difficult and dangerous ride back to Earth; the Soyuz's equipment module failed to separate properly from the reentry module, and so the craft followed an unusually steep descent trajectory – a "ballistic" descent at eight times the force of Earth-normal gravity. The crew made an extremely hard landing, which missed the target by 470 km (300 miles). Fortunately, Peggy and other crew members suffered no permanent injuries.
Other Achievements: She currently serves as Chief of the Astronaut Office at NASA, overseeing all NASA astronaut activities, including crew selection and training.
In Her Own Words: When asked if she ever realized growing up on her farm in Iowa that she would one day set a record for time spent in space, Peggy replied: "No, I don't think I was perceptive enough to know that then. There is so much involved in these things, including just being in the right place at the right time. I can't really say I've taken credit for any of that. But I'm happy to have been able to play that role. I think the important part of that role is encouraging other women to break that record."