NASA’s Peggy Whitson smashes all kinds of records as she returns to Earth
Having been into space already puts you in a very select club: the phrase “one in a million” suggests an abnormal degree of rarity, but when it comes to space travel that doesn’t even begin to cut it. Regardless of how you define space, around 500 humans have gone there, which is a drop in the ocean compared to the 7.5 billion people who currently live on Earth – not to mention the billions of our ancestors who, for obvious reasons, won’t be joining the astronaut ranks anytime soon.
Peggy Whitson is not just highly unusual for being in this clique: she stands near the very top. On Sunday, she returned from her third spell aboard the International Space Station (ISS), taking her total to 665 days in space – or just under two years. To put that into perspective, at the age of 57 she has now spent 3.2% of her life in space. Plenty of people will spend a couple of years living abroad, but few who are alive today are likely to do significant amounts of off-planet time.
So let’s talk records. The most obvious of these is time spent in space, and she’s now the US number one – at 665 days, she comfortably beats the record of 534 set last year by her American compatriot Jeff Williams. In global terms, she’s eighth overall, but 665 days puts her with a commanding lead in the women’s table: Sunita Williams is on 322 days, less than half of Whitson’s cumulative time. At 57, she’s also the oldest female astronaut, and by far the most experienced spacewalker with 10 extravehicular activities under her belt. Her space CV is suitably glittery, too – not only was she the first woman to command the ISS, but she was also the first woman to do so twice.
Not that Whitson would be too happy with the glowing praise above. As she says in a NASA release celebrating her achievements: “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. Recognising 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.”
Back on Earth, she’s looking forward to flushing toilets and good pizza, apparently – both of which are distinctly lacking when you get a certain distance from Earth. But there’s one thing that can’t be replicated down here, no matter how many exotic toppings you can get: “I will miss seeing the enchantingly peaceful limb of our Earth from this vantage point,” she said. “Until the end of my days, my eyes will search the horizon to see that curve.”