The two Iowans in America’s astronaut corps both point to the historic first moon landing 40 years ago today as the spark that launched their successful careers in space exploration. Peggy Whitson of Beaconsfield and Jim Kelly of Burlington have both rocketed into orbit on multiple NASA missions in recent years.
Whitson, in an interview from 2007, talked about watching the Apollo 11 mission on T-V as a girl, wide-eyed as Neil Armstrong first set foot on the moon on July 20th of 1969. “I thought what a cool job,” Whitson says, laughing. “It really didn’t become a reality to me, to become a goal, until graduated from high school which was, coincidentally, the same year they picked the first set of female astronauts. I think that was when I decided I wanted to become an astronaut.”
Whitson has since set several records of her own, including being the first Iowa woman in space, being named the first female commander of the International Space Station and spending more than a year in orbit on her two space station missions. Her 377 days in space is the most of any U-S astronaut. Whitson also peformed six spacewalks, totalling nearly 40 hours, more than any other woman.
Astronaut Jim Kelly has flown two space shuttle missions, both as the pilot of Discovery, in 2001 and 2005. In this Radio Iowa interview from earlier this year, Kelly says he’d love to be assigned to Project Orion, the space agency’s name for the new missions to the moon, Mars and beyond.
“When I first came (to NASA), I was all fired up about it, thinking that we’d be able to do that faster than we have,” Kelly says. “When I caught fire from the space program as a kid watching the initial moon landing, I naturally assumed back then that we’d just keep doing it so it’s surprising to me still that it’s going to take so long to get back there.”
Virtually everyone has heard the historic recording of what Neil Armstrong said as he first stepped on the moon in July of 1969 — “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.” Kelly was asked if he had ever pondered what he would say if he ever got the chance to walk on the moon.
“Never,” Kelly says, laughing. “Nope, that’s not something that ever occurred to me, to think about that kind of stuff. It would be far more interesting what you were going to do there than what you were going to say there, probably.”
Under the current timeline, Orion is to start flying in about six years with Americans perhaps again making bootprints in moondust by 2020. Kelly says he’s thrilled NASA is making significant progress with Project Orion as a replacement for the shuttle fleet. “I’m really, really happy to see that America is back on the course to go to the moon and beyond that, to Mars, and to keep going out, so it’s something that’s been a long time coming,” Kelly says. “I’m very, very excited about the possibility of that. It’s exciting to have a new program starting up. It’s bittersweet to see the shuttle (program) end however it’s time for the shuttle to come to an end because it’s an aging vehicle that’s been around for a very long time.”
The space shuttle Columbia was the first to go into space in 1981. Project Orion is expected to become reality in about six years and may be landing Americans on the moon in 2020.