Like many preteens glued to their television sets when in 1969 Neil Armstrong took man’s first steps on the moon, Peggy Whitson dreamed of becoming an astronaut. Only later did she realize that Armstrong had taken one giant leap for mankind without saving a seat in the spaceship for womankind.
Becoming an astronaut remained a pipe dream for Whitson, until NASA selected its first class of female astronauts in 1978, physicist Sally Ride and biochemist Shannon Lucid among them. That’s when Whitson, who’d developed a knack for biochemistry in high school, started to see her childhood dream as an attainable goal.
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“Suddenly I could do the thing I already want to do [biochemistry] and also become an astronaut,” she tells InStyle. After earning her doctorate in biochem in 1985 and applying to NASA’s space program for 10 years while working in research, Whiston got the green light and finally slipped on a spacesuit for her first trip to the International Space Station in 2002.
The former Iowa farm girl now holds several records among the interstellar elite: She’s spent more time space-walking than any other female astronaut; she was the first woman to command the International Space Station (and did so twice); and she was the first female, and first non-military person, to become chief of the astronaut office (overseeing crew training and assignments and running operations with mission control). Last year, Whitson, 58, also broke NASA’s record for the most time in space, wracking up a total of 665 cumulative days—meaning she’s spent more time in outer space than any other American, ever.
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Now, while in a post-flight period, the record-breaking astronaut is sharing her space experience with the world, starring in Darren Aronofsky (Mother!)’s new TV venture: One Strange Rock. The 10-part series, which premiered on National Geographic yesterday, tells the story of our planet from the perspective of the boundary-pushing astronauts who’ve left it behind. Whitson sat down with InStyle to talk about what space is really like and how she ignored bad advice, taking her career to astronomical heights.
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Overcoming obstacles: It’s no secret that female astronauts have been undervalued and altogether dismissed for the better part of history (hello, Hidden Figures). Whitson even remembers renowned professor Dr. James Van Allen (the famous space scientist who discovered the Van Allen radiation belt) once scoffing at her astronaut aspirations. “I met him [a fellow Iowa Wesleyan College alum] as I was graduating from the college. He was building space hardware in his laboratory and when I told him I wanted to become an astronaut, he said, ‘Eh. That astronaut thing is probably a flash in the pan. You don’t want to do that.’ I was like, ‘Really cool space hardware, but I’m going to ignore that advice.’”
As her career’s progressed, Whitson continually ignored barriers to her success, proving her scientific prowess and undeniable value time and time again, just like that first class of female NASA astronauts she remains inspired by. “I actually feel really lucky that this first group broke down a lot of barriers before me,” she says.
The gig’s hardest adjustment: “The new guys,” as Whitson affectionately calls the latest crop of astronaut trainees, struggle not to knock tools all over the spaceship in zero gravity. Meanwhile, Whitson, who returned to Earth’s atmosphere after her third mission in September, has more trouble adjusting to life back on Earth. “Gravity sucks. You feel so heavy, and readjusting is not fun.”
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Day-to-day on earth: When Whitson’s not breaking records in space or adjusting to the natural laws of earthly physics, she enjoys reading and watching science-fiction movies and series. She grew up a Star Trek fan and has since decided to forgive the occasional falsity in other sci-fi works. “Sometimes I’m like, ‘Ugh the orbital mechanics are not working for me.’ But for the most part it’s okay.”
Galactic take-away: “Perspective is the most important thing you gain [from being an astronaut]. And not only do you gain this perspective of our planet and our home, but also you see the thousands and thousands and thousands of stars that make up our galaxy,” Whitson says. “Then you recognize that we’re one galaxy out of billions. And you’re just so in awe of where we are, how small we are, how special this place is.” Trying to relay the actual experience of spending time in space to inspired kids and awe-struck adults during talks she gives is not so easy, but Whitson is up for the challenge before she returns to NASA to support crews in training and in orbit.