The space shuttle Discovery is scheduled for liftoff this (Saturday) afternoon, NASA’s first manned launch in a full year. The first Iowa woman in space, astronaut Peggy Whitson, rocketed into orbit in 2002 and spent six months aboard the International Space Station. Whitson, who is not on this latest mission, says preparing for a liftoff brings a range of emotions, but she says she wasn’t scared. Whitson, a 46-year-old Beaconsfield native, says “There isn’t really that much fear involved. I think there’s way more excitement and we get a lot of training here on the ground to prepare us for the flight.” This “Return to Flight” mission is only the second shuttle flight since Columbia broke up during re-entry in 2003, killing all seven astronauts aboard. Whitson says crews are trained and re-trained for every emergency and are fully aware of the risks. She says NASA prepares the team for all foreseeable eventualities, including claustrophobia. Whitson says she wasn’t bothered by the tight confines during her long stay on the space station or during the shuttle flights. Whitson says “Obviously the spaces we’re talking about are pretty small most of the time. The station’s a pretty big environment though. It’s like living in three school buses lined up, not that wide but about that long, so it’s pretty luxurious compared to living on the shuttle.” Whitson, who holds two patents and a doctorate in biochemistry, encourages young Iowans to pursue their dreams and their studies, as she’s living proof of how an Iowa farm girl can grow up to find great success. Whitson says “It’s important for our young people to understand that an education is going to make a difference in their life and that they need to start pursuing it. Lots of kids think, ‘Well, I’ll get down and work hard when I get to college’ but it starts earlier than that. It makes a big difference in your life to work hard in school and to pursue whatever it is that excites you.” Liftoff of Discovery is scheduled for 2:49 P-M/Central time today (Saturday), but that may change.

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