Peggy Whitson

Biography of Peggy Whitson, American biochemical research astronaut. With her two long-term stays on board the International Space Station, she is NASA’s most experienced astronaut.

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She holds the record for the number of days in space among all NASA astronauts.

The years of childhood and youth

Peggy Whitson was born on February 9, 1960, in Mount Ayr, in southwestern Iowa.

Her parents, Keith and Beth Whitson, owned a farm on the outskirts of Beaconsfield, a small town located near Mount Ayr.

They had two daughters: the oldest, Kathy; the youngest, Peggy.

Mountayr
In the 2010 census, the city of Mount Ayr had 1,691 inhabitants. Credit: web city-data.com

Keith and Beth Whitson worked all day on the farm. From them, Peggy learned the value of hard work, discipline, and perseverance.

On July 21, 1969, when Peggy Whitson was nine years old, Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong landed on the Moon for the first time.

Seeing them walk on the Moon, she decided she would be an astronaut.

Peggy Whitson attended primary and secondary education at “Mount Ayr Community High School”.

She graduated in 1978 and received the Award for Academic Excellence.

Just in 1978, Sally Ride was selected by NASA to start training as an astronaut.

When she saw this news, Peggy Whitman was entrenched in her decision to become an astronaut and travel into space.

Salley Ride
Sally Ride famous American Astronaut, Credit: NASA

In 2008, the Mount Ayr Lions Club named the school’s Science Laboratory “Peggy Whitson Science Center” after Peggy.

Peggy Whitson decided to specialize in Science

After completing her primary and secondary studies, Peggy Whitson enrolled at Iowa Wesleyan College, majoring in chemistry and biology.

In 1980, she won one of the “Orange van Colhounscholarships that were awarded to students who stood out for their excellence, in order to help them pay for their studies.

Subsequently, in 1981 she obtained the certificate of science graduate, with the mention Summa cum Laude.

During her years at Iowa Wesleyan College, Peggy Whitson had been such a brilliant and hard-working student that she deserved to receive the 1981 certificate that included her on the “President’s Honor List“.

This is a great honor given to students who achieve a perfect grade point average, that is, a grade point average with the highest grades in the semester.

Her teachers had been able to admire her intelligence and tenacity, so they tried to persuade her to enroll in medical school.

However, Peggy remained true to her goal, which was in space.

Peggy Whitson’s Marriage and PhD

In 1981 Peggy Whitson went to Rice University in Houston with the intention of earning a doctorate in biochemistry.

She got it three years later, in 1984.

During those years she met her husband, Clarence Sams. Both were studying for a doctorate in biochemistry at Rice University and together they completed a postdoctoral degree at the same university.

Clarence Sams
Peggy Whitson and Clarence Sams on November 13, 2017. Credit: web zimbio.com

They were married on May 6, 1989. Sam became manager of the Molecular and Cellular Research Laboratory at NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston.

Peggy Whitson’s early working years

After working two years at Rice University, Peggy Whitson was hired as a National Research Advisor at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.

Little by little she was getting closer to NASA.

In 1986, Peggy Whitson was admitted as a resident at one of NASA’s associated research centers at the Johnson Space Center.

Her work consisted of advanced research related to medicine and biochemistry.

From April 1988 to September 1989, she served as supervisor of the Biochemical Research Group at KRUG International, a medical science contracting company, at the NASA Space Center.

From 1991 to 1997, she was an adjunct professor in the Department of Internal Medicine, and in the Department of Human Biological Chemistry and Genetics at the University of Texas.

Peggy Whitson began collaborating with NASA

In addition, from 1992 to 1995, she collaborated as a project scientist for the Shuttle-Mir program.

This was a year after Britain’s Helen Sharman had been a scientist on the Mir space station.

Shuttle Atlantis
Photograph of the shuttle Atlantis while anchored to the MIR, a Russian space station. Credit: web nasa.gov

This program was designed so that:

  1. a) the United States learned from the Russian experience in long-duration space flight; and
  2. b) foster a cooperative spirit between the two nations and their respective space agencies, NASA and RKA.

This program allowed the construction of the International Space Station in 1994.

It also made possible American shuttle missions, a Russian joint Soyuz flight, and nearly 1,000 days in space for American astronauts.

From 1991 to 1992, Peggy Whitson was a developer of payload elements for stem cell research.

From 1989 to 1993, she worked as a biochemist in biomedical operations and in one of NASA’s research laboratories.

She was also a member of the USA-USSR Board on Space Biology and Medicine.

Peggy Whitson was getting closer to her target

In April 1996, she was selected as an astronaut candidate, and as Chief of Medical Sciences Division at NASA’s Johnson Space Center.

Five months later, she began her training for space travel.

Upon completing two years of training and evaluation, she was assigned to technical work in the Astronaut Operations Office.

In 1997, she was appointed an assistant professor at Rice University and assigned to the Maybee Laboratory, specializing in Biochemical and Genetic Engineering.

From 1998 to 1999, she participated in the Crew Test Support Team, in Russia.

Peggy Whitson’s Resume at NASA

In June 2003, she was commander of the NEEMO 5 Mission aboard the Aquarius Submarine Laboratory.

She was staying and working in the Aquarius for 14 days.

From November 2003 to March 2005, she was Head of the Astronaut Office.

From March 2005 to November 2005, she was Head of the Astronaut Station Operations Branch.

And she trained as a substitute for the Commander on ISS expeditions.

Peggy Whitson was the first female commander of the International Space Station.

She was never afraid to go into space, but being a commander she felt different.

Being responsible for crew safety and vehicle safety required a lot of temper and excellent preparation. She met both requirements.

She was Head of the Astronaut Office until July 2012 and, as such, responsible for the preparation activities of the International Space Station crews and support personnel.

The lead astronaut leads the astronaut corps and serves as an advisor to the NASA administrator in all aspects of astronaut training.

Peggy Whitson on the 5th Space Expedition

Expedition 1 was the first long-term stay on the International Space Station (ISS).

The crew of three people remained on board the station for 136 days.

The expedition began when the Russian Soyuz spacecraft docked with the ISS on November 2, 2000.

During the mission, the Expedition 1 crew activated various systems at the station, unpacked previously dispatched equipment, and housed three American crews and two Russian unmanned refueling vehicles.

Peggy Whitson saw her dream of space travel come true when she was part of the crew on Expedition 5: Valery Korzun, Russian, commander; Peggy Whitson, American, Flight Engineer 1; Sergei Treshev, Russian, Flight Engineer 2.

Astronauts Expedition 5
For these three astronauts, Expedition 5 was their first space flight. Credit: es.wikipedia.org

This crew traveled on June 5, 2002, aboard the space shuttle STS-111.

They docked with the International Space Station (ISS) on June 7, 2002.

During her six-month stay on board the International Space Station, Peggy Whitson installed the Mobile Base System, and two segments of a handling system, used on the space station.

These jobs required a total of 4 hours and 25 minutes of spacewalking, outfitted in a Russian space suit.

She also had to attach a micro meteorite-proof shield to the Zvezda Service Module.

In addition, she activated and tested a loading rack that would serve for subsequent installations.

Peggy whitson suit astronomer
To do work outside the ISS, Peggy had to wear very sophisticated special suits. Credit: web elpais.com

While on the ISS, Peggy Whitson received the NASA “First Science Officer” appointment.

In the six months she was on board the ISS, she conducted 21 investigations in human life science and microgravity studies.

On December 7, 2002, the Expedition 5 crew returned to Earth aboard the space shuttle STS-113.

Peggy Whitson had been in the space for 184 days, 22 hours, and 14 minutes.

Peggy Whitson on the 16th Space Expedition

Their second mission, Expedition 16, launched on October 10, 2007: they traveled in a Soyuz TMA-11.

On Expedition 16, Peggy Whitson served as commander.

She was the first woman to hold this position on an Expedition. It was also a long-term stay.

The other two members of the expedition were: Yuri Malenchenko (Russian) and Yi Tan-Yeon (Chinese).

On December 18, 2007, while Peggy was conducting Expedition 16’s fourth spacewalk to inspect the integrated frame structure.

The ground team reported that she had become the astronaut with the most accumulated space hours in NASA history.

The return to Earth was made aboard a Russian ship, a Soyuz, on April 19, 2008.

The reentry was bumpy, because the Soyuz propulsion module had technical difficulties and the “ballistic reentrysubjected the crew to forces approximately eight times greater than that of gravity.

Peggy in Space Station
Astronaut Peggy Whitson aboard the International Space Station. Credit: web abc.es/ciencia

On this expedition, Peggy Whitson was in space for 191 days, 19 hours, and 8 minutes.

Peggy Whitson on the 51st Space Expedition

On April 10, 2017, Peggy Whitson had already turned 57 years old, when she traveled aboard a Russian spacecraft, with two other companions, bound for the International Space Station.

It was ISS Expedition 51 and Peggy Whitson was commander.

It was the second time she held that position. Two Russian astronauts from Expedition 50 had remained on the ISS, so there were five inhabitants of the ISS with Peggy during those months.

On May 12, 2017, it was Peggy Whitson’s turn to take a spacewalk outside of the ISS.

She set about installing various components that were necessary for the protection of the Station and to carry out scientific experiments. She was off the ISS for 4 hours and 13 minutes.

On May 23, 2017, she repeated the walk. This time she was away for 2 hours 46 minutes, replacing a failed multiplexer and installing two wireless communication antennas.

Expedition 51 ended on June 2, 2017, with the return to the Land of Soyuz.

Peggy Whitson return
Peggy Whitson returned to Earth after accumulating 665 days in space. Credit: web chainser.com

With her two long-term stays on board the ISS, Peggy Whitson is NASA’s most experienced astronaut, and the record holder for the number of days in space, out of all NASA astronauts.

Soon after, two other intrepid women followed in Peggy Whitson’s footsteps on the International Space Station: Christine Koch and  Jessica Meir.

Peggy Whitson retires with NASA honors

In June 2018, Peggy Whitson announced her retirement after being the American with the most days in orbit: 665 days, 22 hours and 22 minutes.

In a phone call the day she broke the record for most consecutive days in space, President Donald Trump stated:

Peggy is a phenomenal role model for young women and all Americans, who are exploring or participating in educational programs. As I have said many times, only by harnessing the full potential of women in our society will we truly be able to make them America is great again. When I signed the INSPIRE Women Act in February, I did it to ensure that more women have access to education, careers, and to ensure that America continues to benefit from contributions from pioneers like Peggy“.

NASA has spared no awards and medals for “exceptional leadership“, “space flight” and numerous other mentions and medals.

  • Educational institutions awarded him “predoctoral fellowship”, “postdoctoral fellowship”, “summa cum laude”, “academic excellence”.
  • Group Achievement Award for Shuttle-Mir Program.
  • American Astronautical Society Randolph Lovelace Award.
  • Merit Medal in Space Exploration “, awarded by the Russian government.

Click here if you want to see this biography in Spanish translation

 

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