Last updated July 5, 2018 at 9:48 am
NASA’s most experienced astronaut retires after over 30 years of service.
Legendary NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson has hung up her wings, retiring from the space agency. Whitson, who has spent more time in space than any American and tops the list for women in space, left the NASA astronaut office for the last time on Friday 15 June.
“Her determination, strength of mind, character, and dedication to science, exploration, and discovery are an inspiration to NASA and America,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said.
“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.”
Whitson’s last mission ended on 3 September 2017 when her Soyuz capsule returned to Earth in Kazakhstan. The end of that 289 day mission brought her career tally to 665 days and 22 hours in space, accumulated over 3 missions.
“Peggy is a classmate and a friend, and she will be deeply missed,” said Pat Forrester, current chief of the Astronaut Office. “Along with her record setting career, she leaves behind a legacy of her passion for space.”
The making of a legend
Her final mission, Expeditions 50/51/52, saw Whitson command the International Space Station for a second time – the first time a woman had commanded the station more than once.
During her nine-month stay she also completed four EVA’s, taking her career total to 10 spacewalks and over 60 hours outside the station.
Whitson’s first mission to space, however, was aboard the space shuttle Endeavour on STS-111 in 2002. During a six-month stay on the ISS, she installed structural pieces of the station, conducted an EVA to install micrometeorite shielding, and in her role as Science Officer oversaw 21 experiments on human life sciences and microgravity.
Her next mission launched in a Soyuz in 2007 for another six-month stint on the ISS. While station commander, Whitson coordinated the first expansion of the station’s living and working space in more than six years – adding the Harmony module, ESA’s Columbus laboratory module, and JAXA’s Kibo module. In addition, Canada’s Dextre robot was added to the station.
Her biggest scare came during the re-entry at the conclusion of that second mission. A propulsion section failed to separate from the Soyuz crew cabin, plunging the craft into the atmosphere in an incorrect orientation with the automated manoeuvring engines struggling to control the spacecraft.
After a period described by Whitson as “rocking and rolling” the rogue module eventually broke free, however the capsule then transitioned to a “ballistic re-entry” profile.
That ballistic re-entry – where the capsule doesn’t generate lift and thus enters the atmosphere at a much steeper angle than usual – subjected the crew to more than eight times the force of gravity for a sustained period of time. The steeper entry also resulted in the capsule coming down far short of its intended landing zone.
Soyuz commander Yuri Malenchenko was able to climb from the capsule, with Whitson and Korean So-Yeon Yi being assisted by surprised local villagers.
In the aftermath of the hard landing Whitson was interviewed by a US news service, saying while she wasn’t yet sure what had caused the propulsion module to fail to separate, “I guess the old pilot’s saying of ‘any landing you can walk away from was a good one’ probably applies here.”
Over her three missions, she contributed to hundreds of experiments in biology, biotechnology, physical science and Earth science, and welcomed several cargo spacecraft delivering tons of supplies and research experiments. She also played a pivotal role in the building, expansion, and maintenance of the ISS.
A ground breaker on Earth
Whitson’s time on the ground at NASA was no less groundbreaking. She served as chief of the astronaut corps from 2009 to 2012, becoming both the first woman to hold the position and the first non-military astronaut corps chief.
Unlike previous chiefs, Whitson came from a scientific background having graduated from Rice University with a PhD in Biochemistry in 1985.
She began work at NASA in 1986 as a National Research Council Resident Research Associate, before moving to work with a contractor supplying services to NASA, and later worked on a range of NASA projects in a ground-based scientific role.
During this time she was a member of the U.S.-USSR Joint Working Group in Space Medicine and Biology, and rose to the role of Deputy Division Chief of the Medical Sciences Division at Johnson Space Center.
She was selected as an Astronaut Candidate in 1996, and following two years of training began technical duties in the Astronaut Office Operations Planning Branch.
Between her space missions she also commanded the fifth underwater NEEMO mission in 2003, was Chief of the Station Operations Branch, Astronaut Office, and sat on the Astronaut Selection Board in 2005 before chairing it in 2009.
In her eventual role as Chief of the Astronaut Corps, she was responsible for the mission preparation activities and on-orbit support of all International Space Station crews and support personnel. She also oversaw the crew interface for future heavy launch and commercially-provided transport vehicles.
In 2018, Time named her one of the top 100 influential people in the world.