Iowa native Peggy Whitson has changed her title slightly — from astronaut to aquanaut. Whitson’s in her second week living with five other NASA staffers in a lab 60-feet underwater off the Florida Keys. The Mount Ayr native says she’s running a dozen life sciences experiments and has done some long scuba dives, which are similar to the E-V-As or extra vehicular activity she did while aboard the space station last year. During a six-hour dive this week, she said she got pretty cold, which was unexpected as she said during E-V-A’s, the thermal control on her space suit was much better. Whitson says space walking is like scuba diving in some ways, with a few key differences. “Working in water and in zero gravity does have some similarities, for instance, it becomes difficult to maneuver with two hands if you don’t have some foothold to hold your body in position.” One advantage to scuba diving is gravity — since she says when you drop something, it sinks and you can find it, instead of it floating off into space. Whitson spoke with Radio Iowa this morning from the underwater lab via a NASA Internet link. Whitson and the underwater team, which includes two astronauts, built a mock-up of a space station module using plastic pipes, as practice for the real thing. She says building the P-V-C pipe structure simulated tasks like those done during an E-V-A. It looked good, she said, until they tried to turn the creation to show it off for a camera — and it fell over. Given the shuttle Columbia crash in February that killed seven astronauts, does Whitson still want to go back into space? “Very much so. I would go back in a heartbeat.” The first Iowa woman in space, Whitson spent about six months aboard the space station in the latter half of 2002 and was named the station’s first science officer. In the wake of the Columbia disaster, Whitson says the recent launch of robots bound for Mars are -not- a threat to people exploring space. “Robotic missions are a good precursor and give us a good base, some information that allows us to do a better job when we -do- go. I do think that we oughta’ send humans and I’ll sign up to go now.” Whitson is the only person on the underwater crew who’s flown in space. Two of the other crew are astronauts who are still waiting for their first assignments in orbit. Whitson says she’s sharing her knowledge with them about her 181 days aboard the space station. She says she enjoys studying the challenges of extreme environments and hopes to someday return to space. Read some of Whitson’s journals, see pictures and to watch live video from Aquarius.
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