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Peggy Whitson, Expedition 5, Expedition 16
Mikhail Metzel/AP

Peggy Whitson, First Woman to Command the International Space Station

February 09, 2010
by Shannon Firth
On April 19, 2008, Peggy Whitson completed a tour as the first female commander of the International Space Station. A veteran NASA astronaut, Whitson oversaw the station’s first expansion in six years.

How She Got There

Born on February 9, 1960, in Mt. Ayr, Iowa, Peggy Whitson graduated from Iowa Wesleyan College in 1981, and received her doctorate in biochemistry from Rice University in 1985. She worked as a Welch Postdoctoral Fellow before joining NASA in 1986.

From 1989 to 1993, Whitson was a research biochemist for NASA. During that time, she also served as an Adjunct Assistant Professor at the University of Texas and Rice University. In 1995, she became co-chair of a combined American and Russian working group, and a year later she was named an astronaut candidate.

Accompanied by an American astronaut and two Russian cosmonauts, Whitson flew her first space mission in 2002 as a flight engineer to the International Space Station. While there, she was granted the title of first NASA Science Officer and performed 21 experiments in human life science, microgravity sciences and commercial payloads.

A Rice University press release quoted a Whitson interview with the Houston Chronicle, in which she talked about what it felt like to walk in space: “It was just me out there over nothing. I was about 40 feet away from the station and Earth was going below me. It was an incredible sensation of flying.” During that mission, she helped construct supports for the station’s robotic arm and solar panels.

What She Did

Expedition-16, Whitson’s second space flight, launched on October 10, 2007, aboard a Soyuz TMA-11 spacecraft. The Soyuz arrived at the International Space Station two days later. As commander, Whitson supervised the station’s first expansion in more than six years. She performed five spacewalks and conducted assembly and maintenance tasks.

On April 19, 2008, the Soyuz, a Russian spacecraft, returned Whitson, Russian cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko and South Korean astronaut Yi So-yeon to Earth. The craft landed 300 miles west of the projected landing site in Kazakhstan, after undergoing what is called a “ballistic” descent at eight times the force of Earth-normal gravity.

Whitson described her bumpy ride to the Houston Chronicle: “It was pretty dramatic. Gravity’s not really my friend right now and 8Gs was especially not my friend, but it didn’t last too long.”

According to NASA, Whitson has spent approximately 377 days in space, more than any other American astronaut. Space Facts chronicles the nearly 40 hours of her six space walks, also called EVAs or extravehicular activities (click the astronaut icon to find them).

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