Spaceflight Insider

‘Space ninja’ Peggy Whitson sets space duration record, Trump congratulates

Peggy Whitson signs her name on the wall of the ISS

Peggy Whitson signs her name on the wall of the ISS next to an Expedition 50 patch sticker. Whitson, now the commander of the ISS, has surpassed Jeff Williams to become NASA’s most experienced astronaut. Photo Credit: NASA

NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson has broken the space duration record set by Jeff Williams last year by surpassing 534 cumulative days in space over her three long-duration missions.

Whitson is currently aboard the ISS on her third long-duration mission and is the current commander of the outpost. She launched in November 2016 and is new expected to stay in space through early September 2017, a three-month extension to her original flight plan. She broke the duration record at 1:17 a.m. EDT (05:17 GMT) April 24, 2017.

Trump speaks to ISS crew via conference call

In a conference call from the Oval Office, President Donald Trump, alongside his daughter Ivanka Trump and NASA astronaut Kate Rubins, not pictured, spoke with NASA astronauts Peggy Whitson and Jack Fischer aboard the ISS. Photo Credit: Bill Ingalls / NASA

“Today Commander Whitson, you have broken the record for the most total time spent in space by an American astronaut,” President Trump said during an Oval Office conference call to the ISS.

Sitting next to the president was his daughter Ivanka Trump and NASA astronaut Kate Rubins, who returned from her first long-duration flight in September 2016. In space, Whitson was with recently arrived NASA astronaut Jack Fischer to answer questions from the president. Behind the duo was a banner that said, “Congrats Peggy!! New U.S. High-Time Space Ninja.”

“That’s an incredible record to break,” Trump said. “On behalf of our nation, and frankly on behalf of the world, I’d like to congratulate you. That is really something.”

Whitson, 57, was born in Mount Ayr, Iowa. She received a bachelor’s degree in biology and chemistry from Iowa Wesleyan College in 1981 before earning a doctorate in biochemistry from Rice university in 1985.

Whitson has been involved in NASA research since 1986. From 1992 to 1995, she served as a project scientist for the Shuttle-Mir program, which saw the first joint cooperation with NASA and the Russian space agency since the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project in 1975.

In 1996, Whitson was selected to be an astronaut and started training. Her first mission came in 2002 as part of the fifth long-duration flight to the ISS. During that expedition, she became NASA’s first science officer. Spending more than 184 days in space, she helped install the station’s Mobile Base System, the S1 and P1 truss segments, performed a spacewalk in a Russian Orlan spacesuit, and activated the Microgravity Science Glovebox.

Whitson’s second mission came in October 2007 when she launched to the ISS in Soyuz TMA-11 for the 192-day Expedition 16. She served as commander and was present for the first expansion of the station’s living space in more than six years with the addition of the Harmony module. This would allow the Columbus and Kibo modules to be attached later.

To help with station construction, Whitson performed five spacewalks, which placed her 20th in total EVA time. She returned to Earth in April 2008.

In 2009, she served as the first female Chief of the Astronaut Office at NASA. That position is the most senior of the leadership positions active astronauts can hold at the U.S. space agency. She resigned in 2012 in order to start training for her current mission.

Already during Expedition 50 and 51, Whitson surpassed the most spacewalks by a female astronaut. She performed two spacewalks in March 2017 to bring her total to eight and has a ninth planned in May.

Video courtesy of NASA


Her 53 hours, 22 minutes of time outside the station means she is the record holder for most spacewalking time by a woman and is currently in fifth place overall. That is expected to increase to third place in May with another 6.5-hour long EVA.

Finally, Whitson became the first female to command the ISS twice when she became commander of Expedition 51 on April 10, 2017. When she returns to Earth in September, she is expected to accumulate more than 660 days in orbit, which will put her in seventh place, the only American to be in the top 10 for total time in space.

Oval Office conference call

The president watched Whitson and Fischer via a live stream into the Oval Office. Photo Credit: Bill Ingalls / NASA

During the April 24 conference call, Trump asked Whitson how she felt by achieving the NASA astronaut record.

“It’s actually a huge honor to break a record like this, but it’s an honor for me to be representing all the folks at NASA who make this spaceflight possible and make me setting this record feasible,” Whitson said.

During the 20-minute conversation, multiple topics were brought up including what it is like being in space, what the crew is doing aboard the station, and eventual trips to Mars – likely in the 2030s.

“The international space station is providing a key bridge from us living on Earth to going somewhere into deep space,” Whitson said. “On those Mars missions, we need to better understand how microgravity is really affecting our body and we need to understand it in great detail, so many of the studies are looking at the human body.”

Whitson also detailed some hardware requirements needed for a journey to Mars, including closed-loop life support systems and how technology on the ISS is progressing to make a long-duration flight to the Red Planet achievable.

“That means we, right now, for instance, are taking solar power that we collect and [are] using it to break apart water into oxygen and hydrogen,” Whitson said. “The oxygen we breathe of course. We use the hydrogen, combine it back with the CO2 that we take out of the air and make more water.”

Whitson said water is such a precious resource on the ISS that they are even recycling urine to make it drinkable.

“It’s really not as bad as it sounds,” Whitson assured.

Trump asked when Whitson thought NASA would be sending people to Mars and if there was a schedule.

Whitson said that the NASA Authorization Act that Trump recently signed directed NASA to be able to send people to the Red Planet by the 2030s. She said that hardware was currently being produced to test the new super-heavy-lift Space Launch System, which will be used to send humans to Mars.

Trump, Rubins and Ivanka

Astronaut Kate Rubins, left, President Trump, and Ivanka Trump discuss with Whitson and Fischer the importance of students pursuing careers in science, technology, engineering, and math in advance of future flights to Mars. Photo Credit: Bill Ingalls / NASA

“Unfortunately spaceflight takes a lot of time and money,” Whitson said.

Whitson said that the trips to Mars will require some international cooperation in order to make it successful, but it would be worth doing.

“Well, we want to try and do it during my first term or, at worst, during my second term, so we’ll have to speed that up a little,” Trump said with a smile.

The president also asked about the opportunities for young students wanting to be involved in space.

Fischer, 43, and on his first spaceflight, said that this was probably the most exciting time in space exploration in his lifetime.

“We are about to have an explosion in activity,” Fischer said. “There is so much involvement on the space station with commercial industry and commercial partners. We have an entire program to manage the science.”

Fischer said that NASA has done a wonderful job of seeding new industry with the commercial crew and cargo programs in order to build future infrastructure for space exploration.

“One thing I love about American entrepreneurs is once you get them going, you better stand out of their way because they’re going to start chucking,” Fischer said. “As soon as we break open that door, this incredible infrastructure that we’ve been building is going to be right there to pick up the baton and continue into the stars.”

Fischer said that now was the time for students to get excited and start studying math and science.

“Our future in the stars starts now,” Fischer said. “You can be a part of that if, like Dr. Whitson, you can find that passion and work really hard. We’re going to find a permanent foothold in the stars for humanity if you do that.”

Video courtesy of NASA



Derek Richardson has a degree in mass media, with an emphasis in contemporary journalism, from Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas. While at Washburn, he was the managing editor of the student run newspaper, the Washburn Review. He also has a website about human spaceflight called Orbital Velocity. You can find him on twitter @TheSpaceWriter.

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