Iowan set to be first woman commander of private space mission

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FLORIDA — An Iowa native and former NASA astronaut is preparing for her fourth launch into orbit this weekend, her first where she won’t be wearing a government-issued spacesuit.

Peggy Whitson, who grew up in Beaconsfield, will become the first woman commander of a private space mission, funded by Axiom Space. Speaking from Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Whitson says her four-member crew is ready. “We’ve been training a lot, just refreshers, reviewing procedures again, reviewing timelines, and so we really feel like we’re prepared to go,” Whitson says. “We have a few more objectives to meet in the next few days but we are so excited to get to space.”

The ten-day mission will take the team to the International Space Station, where Whitson became the first female ISS commander on her second mission in 2008. This mission, dubbed Axiom Two, will be the first mission to take Saudi Arabian astronauts into space, including the first Saudi woman. Whitson says the focus is science.

“We’re going to be doing over 20 different investigations. I’m really personally excited about some of the life sciences and the bioengineering ones in particular, but we have a lot of outreach where we’re talking to students,” Whitson says. “We really want to encourage students to do science, technology, engineering and math.”

In a 2007 Radio Iowa interview, Whitson talked about watching the Apollo 11 mission on TV as a girl, wide-eyed as Neil Armstrong first set foot on the moon on July 20th of 1969. “I thought what a cool job,” Whitson says, laughing. “It really didn’t become a reality to me, to become a goal, until I graduated from high school which was, coincidentally, the same year they picked the first set of female astronauts. I think that was when I decided I wanted to become an astronaut.”

Whitson retired from the NASA astronaut corps in 2018. She’s now Axiom’s Director of Human Spaceflight and says she’s thrilled to be looking ahead to future challenges. “We want to be able to have a commercial space station. We plan to have the first module up in late 2025 and that will expand our capability to do commercial space,” Whitson says, “and to have more and more people available, have more and more different science and payloads coming from all over the world. We are using these missions to learn how to optimize for that future mission in space.”

Whitson will become the only person in history who’s gone into space aboard an American space shuttle, a Russian Soyuz spacecraft (twice), and a private SpaceX capsule. Each member of the crew is taking along a small memento or two, including Whitson.  “So for me, I have flown three previous times into space and on each of those occasions, I flew the necklace that I wore when I got married, and I intend to fly it again.” Whitson set a record during her first three missions for spending a total of 665 days in space, more than any other U.S. astronaut, and she’ll add to the total on this trip.

Whitson was also the International Space Station’s first science officer, and she logged more EVAs — or spacewalks — than any other woman. Also, at 63, she’ll be the oldest woman from any nation to reach orbit. Launch of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying the Dragon capsule from Kennedy is scheduled for Sunday at 4:37 p.m. Central time.