Space superwoman returning to Earth with records galore
Astronaut Peggy Whitson is closing out a space streak unmatched by any other American.
The world's most experienced spacewoman is due back on Earth this weekend following 9 ½ months at the International Space Station. Counting all her flights, she will have logged 665 days in space—the equivalent of more than 1 ½ years.
First stop Saturday night is Kazakhstan as usual for a Russian Soyuz capsule touchdown, then a brief detour to Germany before heading home to storm-crippled Houston.
During her third and latest mission, which began last November, the 57-year-old biochemist became the oldest woman in space. She performed her 10th spacewalk, more than any other woman. And she became the first woman to command the space station twice.
On the eve of her landing, Whitson said she's craving pizza—and flush toilets. "Trust me, you don't want to know the details," she said via email in response to questions from The Associated Press. A formal news conference was canceled earlier in the week because of the storm, so email responses were the next-best thing.
She said her home in Houston is fine, but so many friends and co-workers were not as fortunate. Johnson Space Center in Houston remains closed until Tuesday except for essential personnel, such as those staffing Mission Control for the space station. She said the team was sleeping on cots at the space center at one point.
"Any trepidations I might have about returning in the aftermath of a hurricane are entirely eclipsed by the all those folks keeping our mission going," she said.
Most of the flight went by quickly, she noted, although the last week has seemed to drag by.
"Once the switch is thrown to go home, time seems to move a lot slower," she wrote.
Whitson said she will "hugely miss the freedom of floating and moving with the lightest of touch, especially those first few days after my return when gravity will especially SUCK." She also will miss "the ability to 'go for a walk' in a spaceship built for one," a reference to her spacesuit, and seeing "the enchantingly peaceful limb of our Earth" from on high.
"Until the end of my days, my eyes will search the horizon to see that curve," she wrote.
This flight alone lasted 288 days, much longer than intended. A seat opened up on a Soyuz capsule, and NASA took advantage of it to keep her in orbit three extra months. Only one other American—yearlong spaceman Scott Kelly—has spent more time off the planet in a single shot.
Russians still hold claim to the world's space endurance and spacewalking records. Cosmonaut Fyodor Yurchikhin, who is returning with Whitson and newbie U.S. astronaut Jack Fischer, will have 673 days under his space belt once he's back on the planet, accumulated over five missions. Yurchikhin and Fischer arrived at the orbiting lab in April.
Whitson said she could have stayed in orbit longer and that exercise equipment up there is better than ever for keeping bones and muscles strong. She's been an astronaut since 1996 and is married to a fellow biochemist, Clarence Sams, who works at the space center.
A farm girl from Iowa, Whitson enjoyed growing vegetables on the space station, all part of scientific research, and especially enjoyed sampling some of the results. After so long in space, she longed for fresh produce and did her best to jazz up the freeze-dried and just-add-water space meals.
Last month, Whitson posted a photo of herself on Twitter, "soaking up some sunset time" in the space station's observation deck. "638 days in space and the view is still amazing!" she tweeted.
After landing back on Earth in Kazakhstan (where it will be Sunday), Whitson and Fischer won't be flying straight back to Houston on a NASA plane. The storm delayed NASA's plane from getting there in time to bring the two back right away, said flight director Zeb Scoville. They will meet up with the plane in Cologne, astronaut headquarters for the European Space Agency. A Sunday night arrival in Houston is expected.
What's next for Whitson? "I am not sure what the future holds for me personally, but I envision myself continuing to work on spaceflight programs," she wrote. She also plans on "paying forward some of the advice and mentoring that I received on my journey."
Station officials would like nothing better. "She needs to be our blueprint," said Dan Hartman, the station's deputy program manager.
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