There’s a fair argument to be made that America has lost its passion for space flight. Long gone are the days of massive NASA budgets and school kids gathered around television sets to watch the latest launch, and as the agency itself struggles to find its place in an increasingly commercialized theater, some folks have even begun to question to value of manned space exploration in general. Only 12 human beings have ever set foot on the moon but most of the people reading this article could only name two. This isn’t a shortcoming; it’s a symptom of America’s waning interest in the heavens beyond our reach.

There’s a fair argument to be made that, on average, Americans don’t feel the pressing desire to find the limits of what humanity is capable of in the great unknown high above us but averages can be misleading, and not all Americans have lost that passion.

One days, if mankind ever breaks free from the shackles of budgetary constraints of the relentless pull of gravity, there’s little doubt that we’ll look back at the space-faring pioneers of our parent’s generation as heroes, but chances are that there are a few contemporary heroes, hard at work as we speak, whose names will also make it onto the statues we erect in memory of those who delivered us into the hands of a waiting future. Like those ten men to reach the moon after Armstrong and Aldrin, school kids may not even know these modern-day heroes’ names but one day, in a far-flung future in orbit around Saturn’s moons or venturing out beyond the horizons of our own solar system, kids will look back through history books (tablets?) and learn of the tireless efforts put forth on humanity’s behalf in an era when being an astronaut was not akin to being a rock star. This thankless time in space history will be commemorated for having done so much with so little, for sacrificing self in the name of something bigger, and doing so without the parades and accolades that once came as a part of the job.

Dr. Peggy Whitson is just such a person.

Whitson is the most experience astronaut in history, with more time spent in orbit than any other and more time spent outside the thin walls of a spaceship than any other American Woman. Those are just some of the bigger records this legendary astronaut holds — here are some other accomplishments of note:

Astronaut Peggy A. Whitson, Expedition Five NASA ISS science officer, looks at the International Space Station through a window on Space Shuttle Endeavour following the undocking of the two spacecraft. (NASA)
  • First woman to command the International Space Station
  • First woman to command the International Space Station twice
  • Oldest woman to go to space
  • Most cumulative time in space for any American, or any woman of any nationality
  • Tied for most spacewalks of any astronaut in history (the last of which was for emergency repairs to the ISS)

When asked about Dr. Whitson, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said,

Peggy Whitson is a testament to the American spirit. Her determination, strength of mind, character, and dedication to science, exploration, and discovery are an inspiration to NASA and America. We owe her a great debt for her service and she will be missed. We thank her for her service to our agency and country.”

All told, Peggy Whitson has spent 665 days in space, over 60 hours outside the safety of the Space Station, and her entire adult life working to advance America’s understanding of the universe we live in. Throughout, she’s always sidestepped people’s efforts to call her a hero, instead, always emphasizing how fortunate she’s been to have the opportunities she’s had.