Record breaking astronaut Peggy Whitson is set to return to earth on Saturday, after more than nine months in orbit as the commander of the International Space Station.
Prior to this long duration mission, Whitson had already accumulated more than a year in space on two prior ISS missions, which is a record in itself, but just a few months ago Whitson made history yet again, accruing more time spacewalking outside the safety of the International Space Station than any other American in history. Whitson is also not only the first female commander of the International Space Station, she’s the first women to earn that title twice.
Whitson was scheduled to participate in a news conference on Friday, but complications arose as NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston found itself unmanned and crippled by flood waters resulting from Hurricane Harvey. Nonetheless, Whitson made herself available to questions via e-mail for as long as she was able.
According to Whitson, this most recent stint on the ISS, which was extended by NASA to keep her in the role of commander throughout another set of missions which included one emergency space walk to repair the ISS, didn’t feel any longer than her two previous six month stays, right up until it was almost time to go home; a sentiment often echoed by service members as they prepare to return from deployment.
“I would say the slowest time has been the last week or so. I think it has to do with switching in your mind where you want/need to be. Once the switch is thrown to go home, time seems to move a lot slower.” She explained.
Whitson, by most accounts a hero herself, devoted a good deal of her responses to the incredible efforts put forth by those back on earth, where her home community in Texas has been ravaged by high winds and flooding brought about by the hurricane.
Our home is fine, but so many friends and co-workers have been impacted. For example, in order to keep mission control running, the team (three shifts of a skeleton support crew) were sleeping on cots in the backup mission control rooms. Their sacrifices for the station and keeping things running up here are amazing.” Whitson said of the personnel tasked with remaining behind after Mission Control was evacuated.
“And then there were so many others who ‘called in’ to support various meetings and decisions that had to be made to keep the program running, all the while worrying about the sheetrock that needed to be torn out of their flooded house. All this was done because of the caliber of folks we are lucky enough to have working at NASA.” She went on. “Any trepidations I might have about returning in the aftermath of a hurricane are entirely eclipsed by the all those folks keeping our mission going and physically putting themselves out there to help folks who were less fortunate than us.”
Again, when directly asked how it feels to be a hero to Americans everywhere, for her leadership, and notably for the slew of records she’s broken throughout her spacefaring career, Whitson maintained her characteristic hesitance to consider herself anything more than another part of the larger effort.
I have noted in more than a few interviews that I am not overly comfortable with the praise about the records. I honestly do think that it is critical that we are continuously breaking records, because that represents us moving forward in exploration. I feel lucky to have been in a position to take advantage of the opportunities that I have had, and yet I do acknowledge that my dedication and work ethic helped put me in those positions.” Whitson said in the closest thing to self-congratulations anyone was able to draw from the woman.
Recognizing all that, it is still difficult for me to come to grips with the fact that I have the potential to be a role model. I am working on paying forward some of the advice and mentoring that I received on my journey, in hopes that one day those young people will do the same, and look back on a life in which they leapt at the opportunities and broke their own records.”
Whitson went on to list some of the things she’s looking forward to getting back to, primary among them being pizza and flushing toilets. She also added that she hopes to continue to work in support of future NASA space missions.
When asked if there’s anything Whitson will miss, after spending nearly two total years in orbit high above earth, she wrote that she expects her first few days experiencing gravity again will “SUCK,” before going on to list other, more important things she knows she’ll miss, as eloquently as any astronaut could put it:
I will miss seeing the enchantingly peaceful limb of our Earth from this vantage point. Until the end of my days, my eyes will search the horizon to see that curve.
I will miss seeing and working within this awe-inspiring creation that we, as a people, have constructed here in space, travelling at 17,500 mph. I still can’t believe the incredible level of detail that was required to imagine this place, let alone to build it!
I will miss being the hands of so many investigators, exploring new avenues in research that can’t be accomplished on Earth.
I will also miss the ability to “go for a walk” in a spaceship built for one.
And mostly, I will miss that incredible sense of satisfaction, gratitude and pride that comes from working with the NASA team from on orbit.”
Images courtesy of NASA