Astronaut Peggy Whitson recently returned from another record-breaking tour as the commander of the International Space Station. Whitson holds a number of gender based records, like being the first woman ever to be in command of the ISS, and then the first woman ever to do it TWICE, but Whitson’s most important records don’t have anything to do with being a male or female. Whitson, for instance, has now spent more time in space than any other American in history. Whitson is the most experienced astronaut our nation has ever fielded, but she’s not content with that. Although she’s not currently slated for another trip into orbit, she continues to work for NASA in support roles and hasn’t ruled out another adventure among the stars.
Recently, Whitson was asked by CBS to pen an open letter to her younger self, a task Whitson took to as a means to share some of her incredible experiences and the wisdom she’s picked up along the way.
First, she touched on the importance of heroes in making the unbelievable seem real; she talked about two in particular that motivated her early aspirations to be an astronaut.
You just watched on TV as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin took the first steps on the moon. Although at the time, it was an unbelievable moment in history, seeing it with your own eyes made it real and believable and achievable. It made you feel small, but filled you with excitement. That moment in time planted a seed of inspiration in you. Now, it’s up to you to nourish that seed and grow it into more than just a dream.”
She also touched upon her humble beginnings, perhaps unintentionally drawing attention to what some may consider to be the true American dream: from chicken farming to commanding the International Space Station.
You will get your very first ride in an airplane. The exhilarating view of the cornfields from above will inspire you to fly as well. However, it will take several years of raising and selling chickens to earn enough money to take your own flying lessons. But just remember, learning to fly with that chicken money will be the first step toward a higher purpose. Because one day, you will become a real space explorer.”
Whitson graduated high school the same year NASA began opening the astronaut program up to women, but her path to orbit was far from secure. Whitson was rejected from the program for ten straight years before finding her way into NASA’s hallowed halls.
Know that what you dream for might seem impossible, but you will be successful as long as you make your life decisions based on your own value system and not others. So ignore the naysayers, ignore the people who say you can’t become an astronaut. Instead use it as motivation.”
Perhaps the most touching aspect of Whitson’s letter to her younger self is just how down to earth she remains, even when recounting her vantage point high above it.
High above Earth, you will remember what your parents taught you growing up on the farm: problems don’t always have elegant or expensive solutions. Dad will teach you that number 2 wire and pliers plus a healthy attitude can fix almost anything.”
“You will grow soy beans on orbit while your father will grow soy beans on Earth.”
Whitson then closed her letter with her characteristic discomfort with the idea that she’s a hero or role model, saying, “Know that even though it is incomprehensible to you, you will be a role model. I am still struggling with this one, so you need to step up a bit earlier than I have done.”
She finally concluded with some advice that might suit us all, whether our dreams are high up in orbit or securely fastened to the ground:
I would tell you not to underestimate your abilities, but since I know you I’ll just say: challenge yourself. You will learn that you are so much more capable than you might imagine or even dream.”
Read the full letter Dr. Whitson wrote to her younger self here.
Images courtesy of NASA