Iowa native on the International Space Station does Q-and-A with kids

INTERNATIONAL SPACE STATION — For the fourth time in her record-setting career, Iowa-born astronaut Peggy Whitson is now onboard the International Space Station, this time as the first female commander of a private space mission.

During a question-and-answer session with Texas elementary schoolers, Whitson was asked how hard it was to become an astronaut. She said it took more than ten years of applying to the NASA program, challenging herself to do all sorts of activities she wasn’t sure she could do.

“Those activities, in the end, were what made me a better astronaut and I think it’s really important that everyone tries to live a little bit outside what they’re comfortable with,” Whitson says. “Challenge yourself to do something you don’t know how to do or you’re not sure about because if you fail at something, you learn something from it and you’ll be better the next time.”

The Q-and-A session was part of an effort by Whitson’s new employer, Axiom Space, to inspire students to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and math. The 63-year-old from Beaconsfield talked with the kids about the wide array of scientific experiments they’re conducting on the space station.

“We have a number of different investigations, some are actually trying to understand our human bodies and how they change in space,” she says. “We have other studies that are looking at how cells from our human body change in space, and then we have other investigations looking at how we can develop new technologies for a new space station that Axiom Space is going to build.”

Whitson’s been to the space station on three previous missions, in 2002, 2008 and 2017, and she retired from NASA in 2018. One of the students asked her how many changes she’s noticing, as the orbiting international outpost continues to grow.

“The station is largely similar to when I left but there’s new experiments up here all the time,” Whitson says. “Every few months we get new experiments, new hardware up. So things are different, yet the modules are still the same. There’s two new modules down on the Russian segment that they have added on that end, but for the most part, it feels like home to me.”

Whitson’s previous visits to the space station were all long-duration missions that lasted several months, while this Axiom mission is only for a dozen days, ten of them on the station. One student asked her how long it took to get her “space legs” back.

“I’ve always had a relatively easy time adapting when I got up here,” Whitson says. “For me, going back home tends to be a lot more challenging. I guess my my body doesn’t like gravity as much as microgravity. I’m hoping that after this short-duration spaceflight, maybe I’ll be able to adapt back to Earth more quickly.”

Prior to this mission, Whitson held the record for spending a total of 665 days in space, more than any other U.S. astronaut, and she’s adding to the total on this trip. She and her three crewmates are scheduled to return home this week.