The life of an astronaut is hardly nine-to-five. The first Iowa woman in space, Dr. Peggy Whitson, isn’t complaining though. She’s currently aboard the International Space Station for a five-month stay, along with two Russian crewmates. Whitson, who grew up on a farm in southern Iowa near Mount Ayr, says her typical workday aboard “Alpha” is packed with activities from six a.m. often until midnight, doing experiments, payload work, robotics, and station maintenance.
Whitson graduated from Iowa Wesleyan College in 1981 and got a doctorate in biochemistry at Rice University four years later. She’s putting her scientific skills to use aboard the I.S.S., running two dozen experiments. The subjects include: human life sciences, microgravity, space product development and the long-term effects of being in space. While some see such efforts as futile and a waste of tax dollars, Whitson is quick to remind that NASA experiments in orbit have led to many benefits on earth – in a wealth of medical treatments, A-T-Ms, microwave ovens, lightweight bicycle helmets and even T-V remote controls.
The 42-year-old Whitson says learning Russian was the hardest part of her training for this mission. She says aboard Alpha, she and the crew speak “Ruglish,” a combination of Russian and English. “I’m getting along fine. We can communicate very well together. I still wish I had more talent at languages, but maybe by the next mission…I’ll be more fluent.” Whitson is married (to Dr. Clarence Sams) and she says having two male roommates is not the slightest problem. “These guys are really great guys and I feel really lucky to be flying a mission with them.”
The first Iowan in space, Walter Cunningham, was in his hometown of Creston for the Fourth of July. In an interview aired on Radio Iowa, Cunningham was critical of sending millionaires into space as so-called tourists. Cunningham, who piloted Apollo Seven, says space tourists “don’t have any place at all” aboard the International Space Station. “We’d be hard put to justify budgets to subsidize rich men coming up…just for ‘gee whiz.’”
It’s still not clear whether Whitson’s “Expedition Five” crew will be hosting a visitor, but she says it’s possible they will have a guest for a short time before autumn. “Having as many people as possible get exposed to space flight is a good thing,” she says “because this is such an incredible experience that everyone should have access to, not just the rich, but everyone,” though she admits it’ll be several years before there’s cost-effective access to the final frontier.
From a farm where cattle and hogs were raised, Whitson says she began looking skyward as a pre-teen and was thrilled to watch on T-V as the first humans walked on the Moon in July of 1969. She says she knew space –had- to be for her too. More than three decades later, she’s aboard the largest-ever space station, the product of a multi-billion dollar effort involving 16 countries. When complete, the million-pound station will have the cargo capacity of a 747 jumbo jet.
True to her rural roots, Whitson promises to return to the Hawkeye State this fall to share her experiences with young Iowans, especially girls. She’ll also make a return trip to her alma mater, Iowa Wesleyan. She carried a four-inch cloth seal of the college into orbit and will present it to the institution’s administrators upon her mission’s completion.
Whitson says there is free time aboard Alpha, especially on weekends, where she’s able to spend time gazing out the portholes at Earth, whizzing, swirling and whirling by below. She’s photographed the massive smoke columns from wildfires in Colorado, the colorful coral reefs and huge river deltas. “For me,” she says, “the most beautiful thing to see is a sunrise or a sunset. Just seeing the colors on the horizon as we enter or leave daylight.”
Radio Iowa’s five-part series, based on the interview with Whitson, airs July 15-19.