The American astronaut who’s spent the most time in space is now an Iowa native.
Peggy Whitson, who was named the station’s commander earlier this month, has spent a total of 535 days in orbit during her three missions. The previous record-holder was astronaut Jeff Williams with 534 days.
President Trump made a congratulatory call to Whitson this morning. “That’s an incredible record to break and on behalf of our nation and frankly, on behalf of the world, I’d like to congratulate you,” Trump said. “That is really something.”
First Daughter Ivanka Trump and astronaut Kate Rubins were also on the call. Whitson, a native of Beaconsfield, is scheduled to be aloft another five months. In a Radio Iowa interview from orbit in December, Whitson was very upbeat about sharing the station with four other astronauts.
“Since I flew the last time, we’ve probably increased the internal volume by almost 30%, so it’s actually not really feeling very crowded at all up here,” Whitson says. “There’s still many days where I work by myself in a module on a task and the guys are in their own modules and maybe one of the Russians will come down and ask, ‘Hey, where’s Shane?’ and I’m like, ‘I don’t know, have to go look.'”
Several of the new laboratories are the size of school buses and the station overall is roughly as big as a football field. Plus, the famed cupola has been added since Whitson was last there, a large circular porthole through which astronauts can watch the clouds and continents drift past.
“We don’t really feel too crowded here, it’s actually very nice to be able to have an opportunity at mealtimes, usually lunch but always at dinnertime, to get together and talk and share what we’ve been doing over the day, what was hard, what was funny,” Whitson says. “It’s fun to get together at the end of the day.”
During her missions to the station in 2002 and 2007, Whitson said one of her biggest challenges was coping with the monotony of the food. That’s improved, she says, as she shares the truly-international station with one other American, a Frenchman and two Russians.
“Takuya Onishi, a Japanese guy, was up here before and he didn’t get to eat all of his ‘bonus food,’ so we’ve been tasting on that as well as Thomas Pesquet’s French food,” Whitson says. “We’re having a good time with a little bit more variety than normal. I don’t know how long the leftover Japanese food will last, but hopefully we’ll be able to share more of Thomas’ French food.”
Whitson turned 57 in February and is the oldest woman ever to fly in space. She also has the record for most spacewalks (eight) by a woman. NASA chose to add three months to her current mission and she’s now scheduled to return to Earth in September.
Even with the extra time, Whitson won’t beat the all-time space duration record held by Russian cosmonaut Gannady Padalka at 879 days over five missions.