Record-breaking Iowa astronaut Peggy Whitson will be honored tonight at the Celebrate Iowa Gala at the State Historical Building in Des Moines.
Whitson was born in Mount Ayr and raised on a family farm near Beaconsfield. At age nine, she watched on her parents’ black-and-white TV as the Apollo 11 astronauts walked on the moon, which inspired her to eventually become the first Iowa woman in space.
The 57-year-old holds a string of space-related records for her multiple missions into orbit, but remains humble about her long list of firsts and accomplishments.
“I really feel very privileged and honored to be able to participate in the space program at all,” Whitson says, her voice cracking. “That’s what I’m most proud of.” Whitson was the International Space Station’s first science officer, its first woman commander and she’s the first woman to command the station twice.
In addition to the space endurance record she set earlier this year, Whiston logged more EVAs — or spacewalks — than any other woman. Whitson was named Glamour magazine Female of the year for 2017. She is also the first woman to serve as Chief of the Astronaut Corps. There’s even a Peggy Whitson Science Center at her old school in Mount Ayr.
In an interview with Radio Iowa from the space station in December of 2016, Whitson talked about Christmas in zero gravity. Floating on the football field-sized facility and being able to gaze down at the oceans, clouds and continents rushing past, Whitson said it brought new meaning to the phrase “Peace on Earth.”
“I think the perspective of our planet here is very special and it does provide you with the sense that there are no boundaries, that we’re a planet, we are a people,” Whitson says. “It reinforces the fact that we should be together and at peace.”
Whitson has spent more time living and working in space than any other American or any woman worldwide, a total of 665 days over three missions aboard the space station. Her third mission ended in September. She was asked how it felt to be included among other legendary astronauts, like Neil Armstrong, John Glenn, Alan Shepard and Sally Ride.
“I’m not sure I’d put myself in that same category,” she says. “But, I do think that having records, breaking records all the time is important for NASA. It shows that we are still progressing, we are still doing new things, and continuing to expand on what we know about space. It gives me pride to be a part of that.”
Whitson is focusing on doing public relations for NASA for the next several weeks but says her future plans are still fluid. “I will be doing PR stuff for another few months and then I’ll find a real job,” she says, laughing. Having been in space longer than any other American, Whitson says NASA scientists gathered a lot of health information about her time in space.
“I had signed up for extra because I’m a life sciences background by my training so I’d signed up for pretty much everything I could,” she says. “While in orbit, they took extra data and they are using me in a longer duration data set.”
At tonight’s sixth annual Celebrate Iowa Gala, guests will hear remarks from Whitson and will see the flight suit she wore into space in 2002, which is on display in the museum’s “Iowa History 101” exhibition.
(TJ Dunphy of KSIB, Creston, contributed to this story)
Some other Radio Iowa Whitson stories: