As Obama administration officials debated the merits of the nation’s multi-billion dollar space program, astronaut Peggy Whitson was back in her native Iowa on Tuesday to share some of her experiences in orbit. Speaking at Buena Vista University in Storm Lake, Whitson told how it means a lot to her to be invited back to her home state to speak.

“It’s always, for me, important to come back and talk where I’m from,” Whitson says. “Young people can relate to the fact that I came from this same situation that they might be in and made something of myself. It’s not so much that I encourage everyone to be an astronaut, but just to encourage them to be something they might not have dreamed of.” Whitson, who grew up on a farm near the southern Iowa town of Beaconsfield, spent more than a year aloft on two separate space missions aboard the International Space Station

Whitson was named the first female commander of the space station, which she says was mostly a matter of good timing. “I can’t really say that there was anything besides that,” Whitson says. “If it hadn’t been me, there would’ve been other women that would’ve been able to fill the role and there will be in the future, too. I’m quite confident it will be happening again.”

During Whitson’s mission between October of 2007 and April 2008, the team did a great deal of assembly work on the space station, increasing the internal volume of the station by 48-percent. On that mission, Whitson took along a Buena Vista University banner into space. Whitson’s nephew Chris is a 2008 graduate of B-V-U and asked her to carry the banner — which she returned to the northwest Iowa campus on Tuesday. B-V-U President Fred Moore says he’s thrilled.

“The fact that our banner orbited the earth for several months is astonishing for us,” Moore says. “We hope that this banner, which will be permanently displayed in the rotunda of the science center, and the historic role that the International Space Station plays in the exploration of the universe, will help promote the study of the sciences for the young people who learn here today and will in the future.” The three-by-five-foot cloth banner bears an image of the earth as seen from outer space and includes the B-V-U logo and the words “School of Science.”

Story submitted by Ryan Thompson, KAYL, Storm Lake