The only Iowa woman to rocket into space has two bits of life-changing news — she’s going back into orbit, and this time, as the mission commander. Forty-seven-year-old Mount Ayr native Peggy Whitson spent six months aboard the International Space Station in 2002 as its first science officer. Whitson’s assigned to lead another six-month mission starting in October.
When asked about her personal goals for the mission, she laughs and says "not to screw up too bad." Whitson adds, "With the added responsibility of being a commander, it’s even more important. I have the responsibility of the entire crew and so I think about that a lot more this time around than I did last time." During Whitson’s command, she’ll oversee the addition of four more modules that will double the internal volume of the space station.
Whitson says: "These will be pressurized modules that we actually live in. It’ll be Node 2 which they recently did a contest with schoolkids and they have named it ‘Harmony,’ and the Columbus module, the European Science laboratory module." There will be two other modules arriving, both from Japan, one for lab work, the other for logistics. When she was last on the space station, it was about the size of two school buses inside.
By the time she leaves, roughly in April of 2008, it’ll be as big inside as a comfortable three-bedroom house. Something else new, instead of riding into orbit on one of NASA’s space shuttles, Whitson will be launched aboard a Russian spacecraft, which required her to undergo a batch of in-depth new cosmonaut-style training.
Whitson says: "That is actually pretty extensive. I was pretty impressed they could teach a biochemist to become a flight engineer on the Soyuz, learn all about the navigation systems they use, how to do the rendezvous and the docking so it’s been pretty exciting in terms of the new things I’ve gotten to learn this time around." During the half-year in space, Whitson and her two crewmates will be conducting a roster of experiments designed, in her words, "to keep humans in space healthy, longer," as she says the top priority is now returning to the Moon and eventually, heading to Mars.