Peggy Whitson was the first astronaut I met ten years ago and spoke at length at a party in Moody Gardens celebrating NASA’s 50th anniversary. She was cool and smart, exuding competence and looking different from her male astronaut counterparts as she worked the crowd in a dress and heels. I liked her right away.
If I had known I was meeting a legend, I would have paid even more attention. Whitson is one of the most talented astronauts in the Corps, holding a host of NASA records, including the most spacewalks by a NASA astronaut (ten, associated with Michael López-Alegría) and more time in space than any other American, and even Scott outdoes Kelly.
And it turns out Whitson is about as capable an astronaut as they come. I’ve had the opportunity to talk to many spaceflight insiders over the years, and whenever conversations turn to today’s astronaut corps and the ISS, Whitson’s name invariably comes up—and never negatively. She is often described as not only a model astronaut, but also a superhero in space – a stunningly talented pro in orbit who completes tasks and assignments flawlessly, devouring work and clearing schedules with effortless ease. She’s almost universally regarded as the solution to every problem on the ISS – if something doesn’t work, inside or outside the station, you can probably throw Whitson at it and it will be back to face value in no time.
A few weeks ago, Whitson stopped by the Ars studio, and we had the opportunity to ask her some questions about how exhausting it must be to kick so much ass all the time. She told us about her favorite direction for NASA’s manned spaceflight program (first the moon, then Mars), her favorite thing about life in space (EVAs!), and some other highlights of her hundreds of days in orbit.
She also echoed something I originally heard from none other than Apollo 12 Lunar Module Pilot and moonwalker Al Bean: NASA’s inability to advertise (particularly the ban on using federal dollars from the NASA budget to produce ads advocating for the allocation of more federal dollars to NASA’s budget) means that the agency is often forgotten by the public if there is no crisis or other major milestone to attract media attention. It’s a tough problem without a clear solution – it’s hard to get mindshare if you don’t advertise, and it’s hard to get the public begging for more awesome space adventures without mindshare.
We are grateful that Whitson was able to give us a few minutes of her time. She’s a rock star, and any day you get to interview a rock star is a good day, especially if it’s a rock star who wears an extravehicular mobility unit to work.
List image by NASA