A woman who grew up on a rural southern Iowa farm will take a ride on the space shuttle Endeavour next month and she’ll spend the summer aboard the International Space Station. Astronaut and Mount Ayr native, Peggy Whitson will carry the seal of her alma mater, Iowa Wesleyan College, into orbit with her. An expert in biology and chemistry, the 42-year-old Whitson will conduct experiments during her four months in space that may enable future astronauts to stay longer. She says the goals of her research are to understand the effects of living in space for a long time and to reduce or eliminate the risks.
Whitson says she’s not afraid about the launch or the mission and is confident she won’t get claustrphobic in the confined space of the I-S-S. She says it’s about the size of three school buses, end-to-end, but not that wide.
She looks forward to visiting family, friends and schools in Iowa when she returns to Earth this fall, to share her experiences — and to take the four-inch cloth seal back to Iowa Wesleyan. Whitson says the toughest part of her training has been learning to speak Russian so she can communicate with her two crewmates aboard the I-S-S. Though she’s married, Whitson says it won’t be strange to be living in such close quarters with two Russian men during the four-month mission so far from home. “I’ve trained with these guys for a year and a half now and am very comfortable with them — they’re good friends of mine.”
Whitson won’t be more than a few mouse clicks away from friends and family as she’ll have full access to e-mail in space. She’ll also be able to use a special telephone using a K-U band antenna. Just like E-T she jokes, “I’ll be able to phone home!” Whitson’s husband lives in Houston, Texas, while her parents and brother still farm in Ringgold County, Iowa. She also has relatives in central Iowa.
Launch of Endeavour is slated for May 31st. Whitson will be the first Iowa -woman- in space and the sixth Iowan. Lieutenant Colonel Jim Kelly, of Burlington, piloted the shuttle Discovery last year. Other Iowans who’ve flown aboard shuttles are: George Nelson of Charles City, Colonel David Hilmers of Clinton and Colonel Loren Shriver of Jefferson. Also, back in the 1960s, Colonel Walter Cunningham of Creston flew aboard Apollo Seven.