On Monday, October 29, astronaut Dr. Peggy Whitson visited Sacred Heart. As a young women growing up in a time where women have many more opportunities than in the past, hearing her speak was an amazing experience. Dr. Whitson, who was the first female commander of the International Space Station, holds the record for most days spent in space by an American astronaut, having spent 665 days on the ISS. She has also participated in ten career spacewalks spacewalks. A spacewalk is when an astronaut goes into space in an EVA space suit, tethered to the ISS. Having the chance to meet a woman who achieved her goal of going to space was really inspiring.
When Dr. Whitson was nine years old, a young girl living in Beaconsfield, Iowa, she watched Neil Armstrong’s moon landing. “When I saw the first moon landing, it became a sort of dream for me to go to space,” she tells us, looking back on the Apollo 11 mission. When Dr. Peggy Whitson graduated high school, the first women were finally visiting space. Her lifelong dream of space travel became less of a dream and more of a goal. After applying in vain for ten years, she was finally selected by NASA to become an astronaut. “At first I just couldn’t believe it – and then they told me I had to keep it a secret for two days!” Dr. Whitson tells us with a laugh. Still, she had to push through training for five years before finally reaching her goal – space.
Dr. Whitson’s first takeoff was in a space shuttle. She was seated in the mid-deck during the launch, so she couldn’t actually see out into space until her first assignment. Dr. Whitson went out onto the flight deck to film an experiment, and she saw the Earth for the first time. “Well, I was floating, which was something new,” Dr Whitson tells us while describing her first moments in space. While doing her job, she couldn’t stop looking back to the faraway Earth. “It’s like the most beautiful marble, and it has a sort of glow.” She had to keep reminding herself to focus on her job, but her eyes would always drift back to Earth.
But living in space is sometimes a challenge. “I’d say the most stressful moment in space was the solar ray repair,” Dr. Whitson says. “It took four days of communicating with the ground team to get the hardware and organize a spacewalk to fix the problem,” she explains, describing the time when she was commander of the ISS and had to repair a torn arm on the ISS. She tells us that the scariest moment in space was the re-entry and landing after her second flight. “We went ‘ballistic,’” she says, which means instead of a long, flat landing, their re-entry was short and steep. This means Dr. Whitson and the other astronauts on board felt eight times the gravity instead of the normal five times.
Dr. Whitson’s visit was so inspiring to us and many others because she is a strong, thoughtful, and funny woman who achieved her goals. She uses her own experience to spread the message to girls that they should follow their dreams, and do something in their lives that they are passionate about. “Don’t do things because you know they’ll be easy and you know you can do them – do things to challenge yourself,” Dr. Whitson advises girls. Dr. Whitson tells us to find an area you’re passionate about, and go for it. Work hard and challenge yourself!
Meeting Dr. Whitson was an incredible experience, and we learned so much about space exploration, the ISS, and were so inspired by Dr. Whitson and all she achieved. “Well, I just really love my job! The hardest part I guess would be that in space the food gets a little boring,” she tells us with a smile. “Just try hard and keep going!”