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Peggy Whitson.jpg Peggy A. WHITSON was born to Keith and Beth WHITSON on February 9, 1960 in Mount Ayr. The WHITSONS farm near Beaconsfield, Iowa. On July 20, 1969, Peggy watched a television newscast of Neil ARMSTRONG's moon walk. Nine-year-old Peggy decided that she too would be an astronaut.

During high school she was a member of the basketball and track teams. Peggy graduated from Mount Ayr High School in 1978, the salutatorian of her class.

Peggy graduated from Iowa Wesleyan College, Mount Pleasant, Iowa, in three years with a double major in biology and chemistry. In 1985, she earned her doctorate in biochemistry from Rice University in Houston, Texas.

Peggy worked for KRUG Lice Science, the prime medical contractor for NASA, and at the National Center of Disease Control in Atlanta, Georgia, where she helped set up controls for EBOLA and H1V virus testing. In 1989, Peggy began working for NASA as a research biochemist. She was the project scientist for the joint U.S.A. and Russian Shuttle MIR Space Station and was the chair of the US/Russian Joint Working Group in space medicine and biology. Peggy also served as an adjunct assistant professor at Rice University. Throughout this time, Peggy made nine consecutive applications to NASA. In 1996 her dreams were fulfilled when she was accepted into the astronaut program.

In 1998-99, Peggy was the head lead for the support team of U.S.A. and Russia. Her mission was to spend six months in the international space station with two fellow male Russian cosmonauts, requiring her to learn to speak Russian.

Peggy's entire family and approximately 400 Ringgold County residents watched her launch into space on June 5, 2002 on Space Expedition-5. Peggy carried with her a Mount Ayr Community High School t-shirt.

SOURCE: FETTY, Jack. Rings of Gold Pp. 137-138. Palindrome Pub. Co. Iowa. 2007.
Transcription by Sharon R. Becker, June of 2010

Mount Ayr Record-News
Mount Ayr, Ringgold County, Iowa
Thursday, June 19, 2003

Last June Ringgold county's astronaut Peggy WHITSON was heading into space for a six-month visit to the International Space Station, where she recorded many firsts, including being named the first science officer in space in the National Aeronautics and Space Administration program. This June WHITSON is off on another adventure -- this time spending two weeks at the bottom of the ocean -- as the first astronaut to compare experience in space with life underwater.

Transcription by Sharon R. Becker, July of 2013

Expedition V.jpg

 Expedition V
June 7 - Dec. 2, 2002
Expedition XVI.jpg
Expedition XVI
Oct. 2007 - April, 2009
Expedition XVI.jpg
Expedition L (50)
coming Dec. 2016 - May 2017

Click on either Expedition patch or caption below the patch to read more about each expedition;
click on your browser 'back' button to return to this webpage.

Mount Ayr Record-News
Mount Ayr, Ringgold County, Iowa
Thursday, November 13, 1997

Dr. Peggy Whitson, NASA astronaut, visited with the elementary school students of Mount Ayr Community elementary school Monday. Whitson, a 1978 graduate of Mount Ayr Community High School, is in the midst of training as an astronaut which will be completed in April 1998. Then she will be assigned to a shuttle flight.

Transcription by Sharon R. Becker

October 19, 2007

Missons mark giant leaps for womankind
By Traci Watson, US TODAY

As one female astronaut commands the shuttle Discovery, another will assume the leadership post on the space station. When space shuttle Discovery blasts off as early as Tuesday, the astronaut in the commander's seat will make history — and also represent the likely end of an era.

Commander Pamela Melroy, 46, will be second female shuttle commander. She'll also almost certainly be the last.

No other female astronaut is qualified to lead a shuttle flight, and NASA is unlikely to hire women to follow in Melroy's footsteps before the shuttle retires in 2010.

Still, Melroy's trip represents how far women have come in taking on leadership roles in space. Melroy's arrival in space will mark the first time that two female commanders will orbit the Earth. The other is astronaut Peggy Whitson, who today officially becomes the first female commander of the International Space Station.

The overlap "is just indicative that there are enough women in the program that coincidentally this can happen," Melroy says. "And that is a wonderful thing."

It may be a long time before it happens again. There is no one waiting to follow Melroy, though women account for 19, or 21%, of the 91 astronauts eligible to fly space missions. None of the 19 are pilot-astronauts, the group from which shuttle commanders are chosen.

The space agency plans to hire more astronauts in 2009, but they are unlikely to fly on the shuttle, which will be grounded long before the new recruits' training ends.

Melroy attributes the lack of women on the ladder toward a command to "statistics (that are) very tough." Those chosen by NASA as pilot-astronauts must have spent at least 1,000 hours flying jets, and military test pilots are strongly preferred.

Fewer than two dozen women in the world have those credentials, Melroy says. Fewer than five female pilots graduate each year from the military's test-pilot schools.

NASA officials don't dwell on the lack of women shuttle bosses. The agency prefers to focus on the future, which will offer more — though different — opportunities for female astronauts.

"It would be nice" to have more female shuttle chiefs, says NASA's chief of astronaut selection, Duane Ross, but few women with the right résumés have applied.

Melroy's experience as an Air Force test pilot will come in handy during her mission. The shuttle commander's job includes two of the flying world's most coveted and difficult tasks: landing the shuttle and docking it to the orbiting laboratory 200 miles above Earth.

Melroy jokes that making lunch in orbit for the other astronauts will be one of her main duties. As commander she also has the heavy responsibility of assuring her crew's safety and her mission's success.

Space station commanders don't have to be pilot-astronauts, opening the door to more women, Ross says. So does NASA's decision to focus less on test-pilot experience as it chooses the 2009 astronaut class.

While Melroy can't predict when she might have a successor, station chief Whitson says another woman could take the reins of the lab in two or three years. Whitson says she sought the challenge of directing a station mission but never aspired to be in the history books.

"Being the first female commander is one of those things where I feel lucky to be in the right place at the right time," she says. "It just happened that way."

The day before Whitson launched into space earlier this month aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft, she was presented with a gift acknowledging her status: a horsewhip carried as a mark of authority by male Kazakh chieftains.

The whip is "for the men to remember that you are the boss," Sergei Shevchenko, who works with the crews of Russian spaceships, told Whitson.

"I'm hoping that I will not be needing this," said a laughing Whitson, who will oversee a crew of five men. "But just in case!"

Not all Russians are as respectful as Shevchenko. When a reporter asked Whitson a series of questions Tuesday after her arrival at the station, her Russian crewmate chimed in before she could.

"Peggy is a woman, and that's a lot of questions for a woman to answer right away," said cosmonaut Fyodor Yurchikhin, who then answered the questions himself. Yurchikhin, the station's outgoing commander, will depart the station Sunday.

The incident was reminiscent of a 1996 episode when U.S. astronaut Shannon Lucid prepared for a stay on the Russian space station Mir. The chief of cosmonaut training, Yuri Glazkov, said Lucid would improve Mir because all women like to clean.

Whitson (pictured at left), like all station residents, will do her share of cleaning, but she also has larger responsibilities. Next Thursday, Melroy is scheduled to link Discovery to the station so the station and shuttle crews can work together on a high-profile assignment: an ambitious effort to expand the orbiting lab, which is roughly half-done.

The two space commanders come from different worlds. Whitson, 47, grew up on a hog farm outside Beaconsfield, Iowa, population 32. She holds a doctorate in biochemistry and has published multiple scientific papers about her research.

Melroy was a military brat who moved constantly as a child and joined the Air Force, rising to colonel. She flew combat missions in Iraq and graduated from the Air Force's exclusive test-pilot school.

Despite their different paths, both were inspired by the Apollo missions as little girls. For a time, Melroy flirted with the idea of being a ballerina. Both women have husbands though no children.

Whitson served her first term on the station in 2002. She was the second of three women, in addition to 35 male residents, to live there, and can leg-press more weight than some of her male colleagues. Melroy, at 5 feet, 4 inches, is tough enough to be called "Pambo" by her NASA colleagues.

Both women have earned the respect of their crews. Melroy's pilot, George Zamka, recalled a crew-bonding exercise that required the astronauts to paddle kayaks. Zamka, a novice kayaker, was flailing in the water when his commander glided by him with perfect form.

"She does a lot of things with grace and elegance," he said.

Astronaut Daniel Tani, who will answer to Whitson on the station, said his station commander has keen engineering skills but is also known for running the margarita machine at NASA parties. Tani will ride to the station as part of Melroy's shuttle crew, making him the butt of jokes that he takes with good humor.

"I've got two women commanders at work, and my life is run by three women at home" said Tani, who is married and has two daughters. "So far I've survived all of it, so maybe I can get through the next couple months."

Photographs by AP/USA TODAY
Transcription by Sharon R. Becker, October of 2015,
August 13, 2012

NASA Names New Chief Astronaut
By Robert Z. Pearlman, editor

HOUSTON — NASA's astronauts have a new chief.

Peggy Whitson, who three years ago was named the 13th Chief of the Astronaut Office, making her the first woman to lead the U.S. Astronaut Corps, stepped down in July, a spokesman at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston confirmed to

Space shuttle veteran Robert Behnken, who most recently served as one of Whitson's deputies, has been named the new Chief Astronaut.

The position, which was first created and held by Mercury astronaut Deke Slayton in 1962, oversees the activities of the astronaut corps including managing training programs, appointing technical assignments and choosing the crews for upcoming space missions.

Behnken has inherited the position at a time of transition from the astronaut corps, as NASA looks beyond its retired space shuttle program toward hiring U.S. companies to fly its crews on private spacecraft to the International Space Station (ISS). At the same time, the agency is working with its industry contractors to develop a heavy-lift rocket and space capsule to take Americans beyond Earth orbit to an asteroid and ultimately Mars.

The Astronaut Office has 52 members at current who are either eligible for, already in training, or taking part in flight assignments. That count includes Whitson, who has now rejoined the ranks who are qualified to serve on board the space station.

NASA is also in the process of reviewing applicants for a new group of between nine and 15 astronaut candidates, or "ascans," to form its 21st class of trainees since 1959. Behnken will now head that selection, which began under Whitson's lead last November and is scheduled conclude with the announcement of the new class members in May 2013.

Record-setting Chief Astronaut

Whitson was announced as Chief Astronaut in September 2009 and took over responsibility from the out-going chief Steven Lindsey on Oct. 19 of that year.

Lindsey, who had been head of the Astronaut Office since September 2006, then went on to command the final flight of space shuttle Discovery before retiring from NASA in July 2011. His departure was one of many as the 30-year shuttle program came to its end.

"As chief astronaut, Whitson presided over a drastic downsizing of the astronaut office to reflect the shift from ISS and shuttle to ISS only," Cassutt said. "She did it quickly, she did it thoroughly, and she did it with a great deal of thought and planning."

"She also made a convincing case for the selection of two new classes of astronaut candidates ... all while her station crew members continued to perform spectacularly," Cassutt said. "I can't imagine anyone else doing that job that well at this particular time."

Whitson wasn't just the first woman to be appointed chief, but also the first mission specialist to be chosen for the role. All of NASA's prior chief astronauts had been pilots, including first American in space Alan Shepard and Apollo moonwalker John Young, who held the title the longest.

Before becoming the chief, Whitson flew two long-duration expeditions on board the space station. Logging more than a year in orbit over the course of the two flights, she holds the world record for the most time in space by a woman.

Whitson's 376 days, 17 hours and 22 minutes in space (to date) rank her 20th on the list of worldwide space travelers for time spent off the Earth.

On her second stay aboard the orbiting laboratory in 2007, Whitson also became the first female commander of the International Space Station. Whitson also set the records for the most spacewalks and most time spacewalking by a woman. She joined NASA's astronaut corps in 1996.

If Behnken assigns Whitson to another station expedition crew, she will become the first NASA astronaut to serve three times on board the orbiting complex. Only Russian cosmonauts have matched that feat, including Gennady Padalka and Yuri Malenchenko who are flying their third expedition in space now. Padalka currently commands the station's Expedition 32 crew.

Next in line

Like Whitson, Behnken flew as a mission specialist and a spacewalker, launching on board space shuttle Endeavour on two assembly flights to the International Space Station.

During his first mission to the orbiting laboratory, Benhken had the chance to work with Whitson in space during her second expedition stay aboard the station.

Behnken is the 14th chief astronaut, preceded by:

  Deke Slayton  : (1962-1963)
  Alan Shepard  : (1963-1969)
  Thomas Stafford  : (1969-1971)
  Alan Shepard  : (1971-1974)
  John Young  : (1974-1987)
  Daniel Brandenstein  : (1987-1992)
  Robert "Hoot" Gibson  : (1992-1994)
  Robert Cabana  : (1994-1997)
  Kenneth Cockrell  : (1997-1998)
  Charles Precourt  : (1998-2002)
  Kent Rominger  : (2002-2006)
 ' Steven Lindsey  : (2006-2009)
  Peggy Whitson  : (2009-2012)

Transcription by Sharon R. Becker, October of 2015

Mount Ayr Record-News
Mount Ayr, Ringgold County, Iowa
Thursday, October 11, 2007, Pages 1 & 8

It's back to space for Peggy Whitson, county's astronaut

Commander Peggy Whitson, Ringgold county's favorite daughter astronaut, and Cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko of the 16th International Space Station crew were scheduled to be on their way to the International Space Station when this week's Mount Ayr Record-News was being printed Wednesday morning.

The launch from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan was set to go up about 9:20 a.m. EDT to begin a six-month stay in space.

Whitson will be part of what should be a record-setting stay in space. If all goes as planned she will return at the end of the mission, holding the record for the U.S. woman with the longest time in space and the first woman commander of the International Space Station. . .

To read more about Dr. Peggy Whitson and Expedition XVI with the International Space Station
click on Expedition XVI patch above.

Mount Ayr Record-News
Mount Ayr, Ringgold County, Iowa
Thursday, July 03, 2008, Page 1

King visits with Whitson

Iowa Congressman Steve King met with Iowa native Peggy Whitson, who is a NASA astronaut and the first female commander of the International Space Station. Raised in Beaconsfield, Commander Whitson led a six-month long mission on the space station [Expedition XVI], where she had already been part of an earlier mission in 2002 [Expedition V].

"Our NASA astronauts are an inspiration," King said. "Their work alone is remarkable, but in person, astronauts like Commander Whitson clearly demonstrate the finest character and intellect we could hope for. Whether it's Norman Borlaug or Peggy Whitson, Iowa produces world leaders. Like her, with hard work, determination and the willingness to dream, young Iowans can lead the nation and the world into the future of space exploration."

Congressman King voted to support the American space exploration program at the National Aeronautical and Space Administration (NASA). The bill provides essential investments for NASA to remain a global leader in space exploration.

* Norman Ernest Borlaug (b. March 25, 1914, Cresco IA ~ September 12, 2009, Dallas TX) was an American biologist, agronomist, humanitarian and Nobel laureate who has been called "the father of the Green Revolution," "agriculture's greatest spokesperson" and "The Man Who Saved A Billion Lives". His work prevented a billion people in developing countries from starvation. Among his honors, he won the Nobel Peace Prize, the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal.

Transcription and note by Sharon R. Becker, October of 2015

Sioux City Journal
Sioux City, Iowa
June 26, 2014

Defying gravity: Iowan Peggy Whitson enjoys career in space
By Bruce R. Miller

LOS ANGELES -- Growing up in Iowa, Peggy Whitson dreamed of becoming an astronaut but largely kept the goal a secret.

“I wasn’t the kind of person who told a lot of people,” she says now, more than a decade after her first mission in space. In grade school, however, she saw Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walk on the moon.

“And that impressed me. That was something,” she says with a smile.

During her senior year at Iowa Wesleyan College, Whitson shared the dream with her adviser. “She wanted me to go to medical school at the University of Iowa. I said, ‘But I really want to be an astronaut.’ And she said, ‘Well, I know Dr. James Van Allen…I can introduce you… and you can look at the medical school while you’re there.’”

The lure of space, however, was just too great. Whitson got a doctorate in biochemistry at Rice University, did a fellowship there, then began working at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.

“It took 10 years of applying to finally become an astronaut,” the Mount Ayr native says.

When it finally happened, “it was so much better than I thought,” she says. “I was never disappointed with my expectations and dreams. The fact that it took so long just made me appreciate it more.”

In 2002, Whitson made her first space mission as a member of Expedition 5.

In 2007, she began her second, bringing her time in space to more than 376 days, making her NASA’s most experienced female astronaut. During Expedition 16, she surpassed Sunita Williams as the woman with the most space walks. She served as Chief of the Astronaut Office until July 2012 and was responsible for mission preparation for International Space Station crews.

And now? “I want to go up again,” Whitson says.

Blazing a trail

In the PBS series “Makers,” Whitson is featured as one of the “Women & Space.” The documentary shows how difficult it was for women to become a part of the space program and what kind of strides they’ve made since. Whitson, the first female commander of the International Space Station, says fewer than 20 percent of U.S. astronauts are women. “It’s pretty comparable to the percentage of applicants we get.”

Surprisingly, many applicants say the Columbia re-entry accident inspired them to seek careers as astronauts. The Challenger accident occurred while Whitson was working at Rice University as a post-doctoral graduate. “It took two years before we began flying again because we stood down to try and understand what the cause was and fix the problem. Interestingly, after Columbia, it was almost two years, too.”

Whitson says astronauts are well aware of the risks involved with space travel. She and her husband decided not to have children, but “that is not among the criteria. That just happened to be me.”

Iowa values count

While farming is her family’s business, Whitson’s father got a pilot’s license when she was 10. That provided a bit of impetus while a “strong work ethic” helped her meet the space program’s criteria.

“Luckily, I had no idea how rigorous it was to get in,” she says. “I’ve been on three selection boards since then and I’ve gotten to see the quality and caliber of the folks applying. It’s really an honor to have made it that far.”

Space, she says, is difficult to describe. “The closest analogy I can come up with is that it’s like swimming. You’re floating in a pool, but you don’t have to worry about breathing. You can move around very easily, just by pushing off a wall. A gentle push can get you all the way across the module.”

The International Space Station is larger than most think. “It’s about the size of a four- or five-bedroom house. The U.S. segment has up to eight modules, each the size of a large school bus.”

Because there’s so much to do in space – astronauts often have specific experiments to conduct – there isn’t time to get bored.

“We have fun,” the 54-year-old biochemist says. ‘But the best entertainment is looking out the window and watching the world go by.”

Large lenses have enabled astronauts to get close-up looks at home. And, “yes, I’ve seen Iowa,” Whitson says. Her father thought it was “way cool” she was in space “even though my mom worried a little more. But she always has been the one who told me, ‘you can do whatever you want.’”

That’s Whitson’s mantra, too. “I tell young people it takes time. It takes effort. It’s not going to be handed to you on a silver platter. It takes dedication and determination.”

Iowa, she says, inspired that dedication. “I’d see my parents go out and work on the farm every day, the whole summer from sunrise to sunset, and I learned that hard work was a good thing.”

Still, Whitson knows it’s not common to set a goal like hers and see it through.

When astronauts get together, she says, they may talk about space walks and the preparation needed. But they’ll also discuss more mundane things – “How did you wash your hair? How did you use the toilet?”

“Whenever you talk to a new guy or new gal who’s getting ready to go to space for the first time, you try to give them as much information and data as you can.”

And then? The adventure begins.

Whitson says she took her wedding ring on both missions but kept personal items to a minimum. Photos, she says, can always be uploaded. Conversations with family members are possible.

“Being adaptable and flexible is really key,” she says.

NASA's future

While the International Space Station is still NASA’s focus, commercial ventures are attracting considerable attention. “It’s like when aviation first became commercialized and people started using it. If you can do suborbital flights, you can get halfway around the world in 45 minutes. That would be beneficial. It’s just the next step in air transportation.” Trips to Mars and the moon and studies of asteroids are all possibilities.

“I’d like to see us further than we are now,” Whitson says. “We just need to keep pushing.”

Too often, she says, space travel is at the whim of politics. “It’s very difficult to build the space program in an eight-year time frame. If we’re going to be successful, we need a longer term commitment to a single program. We work for eight years, then change direction. We throw away what we had and start over again. That takes time and effort.”

Peggy Whitson has logged more time in space than any other female American astronaut. The Iowa native is featured in the PBS series: "Makers: Women Who Make America," a documentary series. Her episode is expected to run in September.

Photograph courtesy Sioux City Journal
Transcription by Sharon R. Becker, October of 2015

Mount Ayr Record-News
Mount Ayr, Ringgold County, Iowa
Thursday, February 19, 2015, Page 1

Whitson heading back to space

NASA and its International Space Station partners have announced the crew members, including Ringgold County's own Peggy Whitson, for upcoming missions to the space station.

Whitson will be aboard Soyuz 49 when it lifts off from a Russian launch pad in December 2016 as part of Expedition 50 to the International Space Station. She is scheduled to return to Earth May 2017.

Raised in Beaconsfield, Whitson graduated from Mount Ayr Community High School in 1978, received a Bachelor of Science degree in Biology/Chemistry from Iowa Wesleyan College in 1981 and a Doctorate in Biochemistry from Rice University in 1985.

Whitson has previously completed two six-month tours of duty aboard the space station. She was the first female commander of the International Space Station, and she was named the first NASA science officer, designing and conducting numerous experiments in space. She sets records among American astronauts and women for most time in space - 377 days - and completed six spacewalks in her career totaling 39 hours and 46 minutes. In 2009 she became chief of the NASA astronaut corps, overseeing all astronaut activities including crew selection and training.

The daughter of Keith and Beth Whitson of Beaconsfield, Whitson credits her parents for much of her success. In a 2010 interview she said, "I think my parents probably are the biggest influences. I was raised [on] a farm; the two hardest-working people I know are my parents. And I think they always encouraged me, always told me, you know, you can do whatever you set your mind to. And . . .I think I even surprised them."

Expedition 50 is comprised of Whitson and fellow American Shane Kimbrough, three representatives from Roscomos, the Russian space agency, and one from the European Space Agency.

Photograph courtesy of Mount Ayr Record-News
Transcription by Sharon R. Becker, September of 2015

Des Moines Register
Des Moines, Polk County, Iowa
Famous Iowans series, 2015

Age is no barrier for Iowa's star astronaut
By Mike Kilen

NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson, left, shakes hands with Lauren Rowley, 5, in 2003 at the Science Center of Iowa in Des Moines. She spoke about her time on the International Space Station. ~ Register file photo

Peggy Whitson turned 55 on Feb. 9, the same day NASA announced she would be one of six astronauts propelled 240 miles into space next year.

A journalist soon asked her if it was really true.

"I guess I never thought about it until then," said the Iowa native, "but I will be an old female astronaut."

Whitson has never buckled before stereotypical limitations based on her background, gender or age. She will be the oldest female astronaut in the world to fly into space.

  • Although she grew up on a farm outside of Beaconsfield, a town of 15 people, she kept telling skeptics that she was going to be an astronaut.

  • Although she was a woman in a male-dominated field, she was picked for missions to the International Space Station in 2002 and 2007, logging the most days in space (377) of any female in NASA history, and became its first female commander.

  • Although she became the first woman Chief of the Astronaut Corps and was hurtling toward late-career middle age, she was determined that her best days were not behind her.

    "Meetings just don't have the same feel," Whitson said. "It's a lot more exciting to get your hands on the experience and make things work. So three years ago, I decided if I ever wanted to fly again, I better get in line if I don't want to be too old to fly again."

    The median age of America's workforce ticks up a couple of years each decade — it reached 42.3 years in 2014 — and those not rising to desk-jockey jobs in management by middle age often feel as if they are on the edge of the pasture, waiting to be put out.

    But Whitson couldn't abandon the thrill of space.

    She endured several weeks of medical verification that included detailed body scans, colonoscopies and tests of her eyes, digestive system and bone density. She needs the physical strength to perform the space walks that she has done six times already, the most by any female astronaut.

    "That is the most physically challenging," she said. "Every closure of the hands requires a lot of upper-body strength, so I do weight lifting almost every day in order to maintain my strength. To recover from a space flight also requires a lot of strength. When you get back home, it feels like you are carrying a 185-pound person on your back because you are not used to carrying around weight in space."

    She passed the tests and was picked to join the November 2016 launch of Expedition 50. She was selected from a group of 43 active astronauts that included three men who are older and 10 women.

    Why not simply ease into supervisory roles?

    She tries to explain it, but it's hard to fathom what she has seen up there.

    She's taken in views of 'beautiful sights'

    While battling the constant feeling of falling in the weightlessness of the space station, she often looked out the window.

    "What amazed me the first time in space (on Expedition 5) is, 'Oh my gosh, so much color and texture,' " she said. "I don't know if it has to do with the clarity because there are no particulates in the air, but you see so much.

    "Outside on a spacewalk takes it up another notch. You are traveling 17,500 miles an hour across the planet. You are looking down with views going past you. It's like being a bird maybe, the perspective of flying over the Earth."

    Visions come back to her, like the time she watched the sun rise as she was "swimming around the end of the planet," the sun slowly lighting up the space below her.

    "One of the most beautiful sights is when the rim of the Earth is bright on one side, and you see this defined line of the atmosphere. You see how close and thin it is. We've got to be careful. We've got to take care of this planet."

    This comes from a woman who grew up grounded, digging in the Iowa soil. Her mom, Beth Whitson, who still lives on the farm near Beaconsfield at age 75, said it best:

    "Think about it. If you had been up there, wouldn't you want to go back?"

    Hard worker bulls forward, bucks odds

    She could not see anything well as a young girl, it can now be told. Although much of her Iowa background has been well chronicled, high school friend Mike Eason shared a new story that Whitson once told him.

    "She was in kindergarten or first grade and was having trouble in school. Finally, they gave her an eye test," Eason said. "Turns out, she couldn't see. She needed glasses. I asked her what the biggest difference was. She said, 'Leaves.' Her vision was so terrible she couldn't see leaves on a tree."

    After she got glasses, he said, she took off in the classroom.

    "We didn't have the term 'nerds' back then, but I think that's where she fell in the grouping. Then she got into high school, got contacts, and played basketball and ran track. I told her one time to just smile when you walk down the hallway, instead of thinking of your studies. She told me later it was amazing how many people talked to her. I think then she transformed out of that nerd group."

    Iowa native Peggy Whitson shared her thoughts of life above Earth through emails during her first mission to the International Space Station in 2002. During the mission she conducted 21 investigations in human life sciences, microgravity sciences and commercial payloads. She also performed a more than four-hour spacewalk. (Photo: Register file photo)

    Whitson said she was a shy young woman who has worked hard all her life to better communicate the importance of her missions. But when she first looked at the television at age 9 and saw Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong walking on the moon, it didn't take words. She knew she wanted to go up there.

    By the time she graduated from Mount Ayr High School in 1978, the year the first female astronauts were named, Whitson said "it became more than just a dream."

    "She has a personality of someone who has a goal in mind and goes for it, no matter what it takes," said her sister Kathy Bretz of Des Moines, a year her elder. "And she will work her tail off to get there."

    She carried on the Iowa work ethic, watching parents Keith and Beth Whitson work from sunup to sunset on the farm and learning to help out. "She did what she was asked to do," said Beth Whitson.

    By the time she got to Iowa Wesleyan College in Mount Pleasant, she was locked in on the goal, despite continued doubts. Her college adviser even tried to convince her to go to medical school.

    She set up a meeting with James Van Allen, the famed University of Iowa physicist who was a pioneer in the space program and designed the instrumentation for the Explorer 1, the first successful U.S. satellite, in 1958. Van Allen told her manned space flight was a thing of the past, that it would be relegated to robots.

    Whitson bulled forward anyway, earning a doctorate in biochemistry from Rice University in 1985. It would take 10 more years of applying to be an astronaut before she was selected.

    "It wasn't until I was on the selection board that I realized how lucky I was. We had 8,400, and we picked eight," she said.

    Second mission has 'Apollo 13 moment'

    Whitson and her family knew it came with risks. She was doing postdoctoral work at Rice when the Challenger exploded, and was in the astronaut program when the Columbia accident killed her colleagues and friends.

    It wasn't easy for her parents to watch her propel into space the first time. Back then, she tried to explain the feeling in emails to Iowa.

    "At launch minus 6.5 seconds, the main engines were ignited and the vibrations increased dramatically; however, these vibrations were a drop in the bucket compared to the vibrations that started at T-0 seconds when the solid rocket boosters ignited."

    It also wasn't easy when they heard news of a hairy re-entry during her second mission in 2008. The spacecraft took a steep trajectory during atmospheric re-entry, and the crew was subjected to eight times Earth's gravity, or 8G, for up to two minutes. It's usually no more than 5Gs. The landing was rough, which she compared to a "car crash," the ship rolling and rolling.

    Yet her most intense moment happened in space. The International Space Station is the size of a football field. During a six-month stint on her last mission, the crew was rearranging solar arrays when one tore.

    It was a complex problem. If they jettisoned the ripped array they wouldn't have enough power to continue the next mission. "It was our Apollo 13 moment," she said. "It was intense up there."

    They had to work with the materials at hand, a makeshift bit of sheet metal found aboard, and cut precise pieces of metal to make "cuff links" to attach it and repair the rip. Her dad taught her well on the farm, she said. There is nothing No. 2 wire and pliers couldn't repair.

    "That was the most harrowing time. Would we be able to pull it off? It was not quite as dramatic as Sandra Bullock in 'Gravity,' but we did it."

    She hopes she can inspire Iowa kids

    Whitson knows it is important to tell people what all this effort and expense accomplishes. The space program is at the mercy of funding, which can wax and wane because of competing priorities or politics, and is shifting to a time of private endeavors, just as the beginning of airline travel once did.

    During her first mission, she grew soybeans, which led to a new water filtration system used in hospitals, and did medical experiments on drug delivery to cancer cells that are now going through their first trials on Earth.

    Among other things, she monitored soybean growth. (Photo: Register file photo)

    During the second mission, the crew explored different solutions of iron in a magnetic field, which could be used on suspension bridges and earthquake-resistant structures one day.

    They spent hours taking things apart, making sure items didn't float away as they worked. The amiable Whitson provided levity, giving fellow astronauts haircuts or painting faces red, white and blue on the Fourth of July. With her short-cropped hair and a small, fit frame, she has the look of a high school gym teacher, with a reserved but easy laugh.

    On the upcoming mission, astronauts will conduct more medical experiments and work on station maintenance.

    Iowans take pride in Whitson. She has been honored by numerous organizations, including entry into the Aviation Hall of Fame and a Hero of Valor designation by the Iowa Transportation Museum. She has appeared statewide to tell of her adventures.

    Whitson hopes that will be her lasting influence, showing the young people of Iowa that no matter how little the place where you grew up, you can do big things with hard work. You can even become an astronaut.

    Her training begins officially next month. But she is already busy working out on weights and an elliptical trainer at the gym in a home near Houston that she shares with her husband and fellow NASA employee Clarence Sams.

    The countdown begins, and not to retirement.

    "She believes in the program very much, for one thing," said Beth Whitson. "She doesn't know she is old, for another."

    Peggy Whitson

    BORN: Feb. 9, 1960 | FAMILY: Married to Clarence Sams

    HOMETOWN: Beaconsfield | LIVES: Near Houston, Texas

    EDUCATION: Mount Ayr Community High School, 1978. Bachelor's degree in biology/chemistry, Iowa Wesleyan College, 1981. Doctorate in biochemistry, Rice University, 1985.

    NASA CAREER: Began studies at the NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston. Held positions such as research biochemist, project scientist of the Shuttle-Mir Program, deputy division chief of the Medical Sciences Division and co-chair of the U.S.-Russian Mission Science Working Group. Selected as an astronaut candidate in 1996. Has held numerous leadership positions, including deputy chief of the Astronaut Office and chief of the Astronaut Corps.

    SPACEFLIGHTS: Her first flight was part of the Expedition 5 crew, which launched on June 5, 2002, docking with the International Space Station on June 7. Returned to Earth on Dec. 7. Was named the first NASA science officer during her stay, and conducted 21 investigations in human life sciences, microgravity sciences and commercial payloads. Performed a four-hour and 25-minute spacewalk. Logged 184 days, 22 hours and 14 minutes in space. On her second flight, which launched Oct. 10, 2007, and returned to Earth on April 19, 2008, she commanded the Expedition 16 crew and oversaw the first expansion of the International Space Station's living and working space in more than six years. Performed five spacewalks to conduct assembly and maintenance tasks. Logged 192 days in space. With the two missions, has accumulated 377 days in space, the most for any woman.

    LEARN MORE ABOUT PEGGY WHITSON'S LIFE: Go to the Wall of Iowans touchscreen exhibit at the State Historical Museum, 600 E. Locust, Des Moines.

    Photographs courtesy of Des Moines Register
    Transcription by Sharon R. Becker, October of 2015

    2015 - 4-H has grown some of the nation's most influential visionaries, leaders and trailblazers. In honor of Womens History Month, we honor Peggy Whitson, 4-H alumna and the first female commander of the International Space Station.

    Peggy's NASA Biography

    Peggy WHITSON Inducted into Iowa Aviation Hall of Fame, 2011


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