You couldn’t blame Peggy Whitson for being excited — she was about to go on a trip that was out of this world.
This article appeared originally in the Fall 2003 issue of Rice Sallyport and has been lightly edited.
Peggy Whitson, an adjunct assistant professor in Rice’s Department of Biochemistry and Cell Biology, had prepared for this moment ever since she was a kid. She studied biology and chemistry in college and received her Ph.D. in biochemistry from Rice University in 1985 before she spent six years training as an astronaut. At last she was chosen for the Expedition Five crew, along with Russian cosmonauts Valery Korzun and Sergei Treschev — destination: the International Space Station (ISS). Even more impressive, she had been named NASA’s first-ever science officer to serve aboard the station.
When the time came to board the space shuttle Endeavor on June 7, 2002, for the flight to the ISS, Whitson felt like a child again. She was so eager to go on the ride of her life that fear had no place in her. “I was excited to be flying in space for the first time,” she says.
At exactly six and a half seconds before takeoff, the main engines ignited, and Whitson could feel the shuttle shaking. But that was nothing compared to the vibration that followed after the solid rocket booster turned on. As the shuttle climbed, the gravity of acceleration pushed her hard against her seat. “The pressure feels like two people sitting on your chest while you are trying to breathe,” she says. After reaching orbit, the fuel in the external tanks had been expended, and the tank was released from the shuttle through a pyrotechnic that jolted the deck right underneath her feet. In less than eight and a half minutes, the shuttle had traveled 200 miles and had begun orbiting the Earth. “It was quite a ride,” she admits. “I was there, and it still seems unbelievable.”
Whitson was living her dream of flying in space, and the dreamlike quality remained when she peered out the window and saw the world as never before. Words seem insufficient to describe her heavenly vision.
“To say that my first sight of the Earth from orbit was breathtaking or magnificent still seems such a paltry way to describe what I saw and felt. My first impression was of the clarity of my vision — not even air molecules got in the way of seeing what was ahead. It seemed as if I could see an incredible distance. The next impression was of the richness of the colors that made up our planet and the atmosphere below. The colors were so vibrant that they seemed to have a previously unseen texture. I would liken the feeling to having someone turn on the lights after having lived in semidarkness for years.”
During her six months aboard the ISS — 184 days, 22 hours, and 14 minutes, to be exact — Whitson conducted 21 experiments in human life sciences and microgravity sciences and on commercial products. She also worked as a builder, helping expand the station. Each crew that visits the ISS is responsible for adding another piece of the puzzle. The station has already grown from the size of an efficiency apartment to that of a three-bedroom house. Whitson helped install the mobile base system, which serves as a platform for a robotic arm. She also added a couple of segments to the truss. The truss structure will eventually support almost an acre of solar panels to provide more power for the space station. When completed, the truss will stretch 356 feet.
All that was very satisfying work. However, the most exciting part of her duties was the space walk. Whitson ventured out into the wide-open darkness for four hours and 25 minutes to install six shields for the main service module to protect it from flying meteoroids. Donning a Russian space suit called Orlan — which means “eagle” in Russian — Whitson was hauled through space by a mechanical arm operated by Korzun. “He was flying me from one side of the station to the other. It was just me out there over nothing,” Whitson says. “I was about 40 feet away from the station and Earth was going below me. It’s an incredible sensation of flying.”
When she first emerged at the end of the giant arm, darkness enveloped her. Then the sun came over the edge of the Earth, and she was bestowed with another breathtaking view. “It started off as only a thin, royal blue, curvilinear line,” Whitson described. “As the line thickened, the colors became richer and mixed with burning reds and oranges. The sun hits the station first, and it goes from being very dark to sepia colors, like some old photograph. When the sun reaches Earth, you first see the curved horizons and then it starts lighting up the atmosphere in bright beautiful colors.”
Being on the space station must have reminded Whitson of the Iowa farm she grew up on, where she not only made additions to the house but had to cultivate a small garden. As the resident scientist, Whitson was in charge of 21 experiments, which included growing the first-ever soybean crop in space. The experiment was intended to see how the lack of gravity affects the chemical composition of the plant. NASA hopes to grow crops in space as food for the astronauts. “The soybean experiment was a lot of fun for me since my dad is a farmer,” Whitson says. “And it was really special for Valery and Sergei to see green stuff for the first time in a month and a half.”
One of the primary goals of the science research aboard the ISS is to understand how to allow people to live in space for extended periods of time, Whitson explains. “Ideally, we want to understand how to send people to Mars and what we need to do with people to make sure that when they arrive, they will be able to function and work effectively.” With that in mind, Whitson did several studies on the human body, such as monitoring for kidney stones, which astronauts are at greater risk of forming. A kidney stone is excruciating and can incapacitate a crew member, and thus force the mission to be aborted.
Whitson also measured lung function, blood circulation, and bone loss. In long space flights, astronauts tend to lose about one percent of bone mass a month, Whitson says, and some crew members have lost up to 20 percent in the hips. Scientists have long known that exercise stimulates bone growth, so to reduce loss, a resistive exercise machine was installed on the ISS.
Another facility that was new to the ISS was the Microgravity Science Glovebox. This device includes an enclosed container with transparent sides that has gloves sticking into it, allowing a scientist to work safely with hazardous materials. Whitson conducted two types of experiments with the glovebox, one on superconductor crystals and another on melting characteristics of succinyl/nitrile mixtures. Both used high temperature furnaces to melt the materials.
In some ways, working in the ISS was like another day at the office. At 6 a.m. Greenwich Mean Time, Whitson’s alarm clock would go off, and the first thing she did was read any emails that the ground crew had sent overnight. She then took a sponge bath, ate breakfast, and got ready for work. On some days she had to do maintenance or repair hardware. On others, she did what she liked best — conducting the science experiments.
In the evening was the social hour, when all three crew members gathered for dinner and talked about work, world politics, and just about anything else. Dining in microgravity wasn’t difficult, despite having to eat out of a bag. The real problem was being on an eight-day rotation meal plan. “After a while the food gets kind of boring,” Whitson admits. Picante sauce quickly became her favorite food. She ate a lot of rehydrated macaroni and cheese, irradiated fajitas and barbecue brisket, and Russian canned foods containing meats and vegetables.
All was not work, however. Like other NASA employees, she had her days off, too. On the Fourth of July, she took the time to entertain the Houston ground crew by playing “Born in the USA” by Bruce Springsteen through the intercom. Whitson also convinced Korzun and Treschev to paint their faces with red, white and blue markers and appear on live video to wish the ground people a happy Fourth.
Whitson enjoyed other whimsical moments. Baseball fans around the world saw her throw the first pitch to open the 2003 World Series. “Microgravity makes it a lot more challenging o throw a ball,” she says, “especially if you want some accuracy.” Whitson also cut the two cosmonauts’ hair while they held a vacuum cleaner over their heads to keep the hair from floating everywhere.
In her spare time, Whitson talked to several schools in such places as Connecticut and Hawaii via a special communication system and through ham radio operators who linked the astronaut to the students. “Those talks were very limited, only about 10 minutes usually, but it was still a lot of fun to answer all the kids’ questions. They were so excited and nervous.”
Students frequently asked her why she became an astronaut. Whitson replied that she was inspired at a young age, and though the training was very difficult at times, she never gave up on her dream. “If you’re pursuing your dream,” she told them, “It’s always worth it.”
Whitson was born in south central Iowa in the small town of Mount Ayr. Her parents were two hardworking farmers who encouraged their daughter to follow her dream. When she was nine years old, Whitson saw Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walk on the moon, and that sparked her desire to fly among the stars. “I thought walking on the moon would be a cool job,” she says. When she graduated from Mount Ayr Community High School in 1978, Whitson saw the first woman being selected as astronaut, and that solidified her career choice. Everything she did from that point on was geared toward becoming an astronaut.
She graduated from Iowa Wesleyan College in 1981 with a bachelor of science degree in biology and chemistry. From a small rural school, the former farm girl went to the big city of Houston to earn her doctorate. “It was a huge cultural shock to move to Houston,” she says.
At Rice, Whitson did research in protein DNA interaction under the guidance of Kathleen Matthews, professor of biochemistry and cell biology. “Peggy undertook very complex and challenging experiments,” says Matthews, now dean of the Wiess School of Natural Sciences. “Some studies required that she spend 48 hours straight in the laboratory, taking measurements every two hours or so. Her Ph.D. work demonstrated that this genetic regulator protein is able to form highly stable complexes with supercoiled DNA containing multiple operator sequences — one of the first examples of DNA looping.”
Whitson’s tenacity impressed many people at Rice. “Peggy was a dedicated and determined graduate student, willing to explore new territory and to develop the experimental tools necessary,” Matthews says. “In short, she was terrific. Her style as a graduate student anticipated her success as an astronaut — bright, determined, willing to take on challenges, and yet able to be an effective and engaging part of a team. It is especially fitting that she was the first science officer on the International Space Station.”
When Whitson graduated from Rice, she was determined to finish her dissertation by a certain date so that she could meet the application deadline for a job at NASA. “I wanted to be able to write on my application that I had a Ph.D. from Rice,” Whitson says. At NASA, she started as a biochemical researcher but was quickly included in joint scientific investigations that NASA was doing with the Russians. In 1989, she made her first trip to Russia to conduct biomedical research and later served as the lead scientist of the joint program between NASA and Russia’s Mir space station. She then served as co-chair of the U.S.-Russian Mission Science Working Group. In 1996, she began training as an astronaut.
After spending six months in the space station, Whitson boarded the shuttle again for the trip home. As she entered Earth’s atmosphere and gravity returned, pressure built on her chest and burdened her limbs. “This camera that I had been carrying the previous six months had weighted nothing,” she laughs, “and suddenly it had what seemed to be a huge weight. I was like: Wow! This is so heavy.”
Whitson felt lousy during her first 24 hours of being on solid ground. “I really thought they could send me back, and I would be okay.” Readjusting to a mundane life wasn’t easy. For example, she had to figure out hoe much force to use in doing simple things like throwing a crumpled piece of paper into a wastebasket. “I threw it and it landed at my feet.” But then, she says, something clicked in her brain and told her she was back on Earth, and everything was fine.”
“Would I do it again?” she asks. “In a heartbeat.”
And she did. With a total of 665 days in space, Whitson holds the U.S. record, placing eighth on the all-time space endurance list. By completing two six-month tours of duty aboard the station for Expedition 5 in 2002, and as the station commander for Expedition 16 in 2008, she accumulated 377 days in space between the two missions, the most for any U.S. woman at the time of her return to Earth. Whitson flew on Expedition 50/51 and participated in four spacewalks, bringing her career total to ten. Read more about her astonishing career here.
Kathleen Matthews is now the Stewart Memorial Professor of Biochemistry and Cell Biology at Rice.