On Peggy Whitson


It continues to be a busy time up in space…after some difficulties, the plucky robot explorer Opportunity is now roaming in Victoria Crater, Mars.  A fly-past of Iapetus has yielded some amazing images of its odd equatorial bulge, which makes it resemble an orbiting walnut. 

And on the ISS (the world-circling anti-celebrity reality show, which this blogs reports on from time to time) a group of weary astronauts and cosmonauts are preparing for the end of their mission.  (For a virtual tour of the International Space Station, click here.) On October 10th, a Soyuz spaceship will dock with the ISS, and Expedition 15 will go home to their families, and will be replaced by the ‘spacenauts’ of Expedition 16. (Apart from the irrepressible Flight Engineer Clay Anderson,  who featured in that wonderful space press conference for American schoolkids, juggling ping pong balls and grinning at the camera – he’ll be staying on a little longer.) 

I was intrigued to see that the Commander of the new team, Peggy Whitson, is a veteran space-dweller; she was Flight Engineer on Expedition 5, from June till December 2002.  She’s a scientist-astronaut, as they mostly are; born in 1960 in Iowa, with a doctorate in biochemistry.  At the end of her first expedition, she had logged 184 days, 22 hours and 14 minutes in space.  She has phenomenal academic credentials, and according to her biog she enjoys weightlifting, biking, basketball and water skiing.

These bare facts can’t of course give much sense of her personality.  Though it’s plain to see that she’s brainy, fit, and so far as I can glean, entirely fearless.  Er, what’s not to love about this lady?

In a ‘letter home’ during her time with Expedition 5, she wrote beautifully of her experiences in space:

As the Soyuz capsule began to fill my video monitor, the sun began to peek around the edge of the planet, making that incredible royal blue curvilinear entrance.  Alpha and the new Soyuz capsule were soon bathed in brilliant white light from the sun. While the Earth below was still dark, the Soyuz made contact and became our new rescue vehicle. 

Every six months a new Soyuz capsule is sent up to the ISS to replace the capsule that is in orbit, and serves as the emergency return vehicle for the station.  It’s a chance to swap crews, and convey materials to and fro.  Later in her account, Peggy descibes how the old Soyuz capsule returned to Earth:

I shut off all the lights in the lab to watch from the window there.  The thing I noticed first was what appeared to be a milky white contrail in the darkness. It brightened and the Soyuz became visible as it began to glow from the heat of re-entry.  The Soyuz consists of three parts, the engine section, the “living compartment”, which is not larger than a subcompact car volume, and the cramped descent module, sandwiched in between them. I was surprised to actually see “razdalenea” (separation) of these three modules. The three glowing pieces separated, and the engine compartment and the living compartment trailed behind the descent module and began a fiery disintegration, looking much like a bright orange Fourth of July sparkler…We were able to see the descent module for a few minutes after separation, before it seemed to be swallowed up in the cloudy darkness below.  After 4 hours of separation from the station, the taxi crew had landed in the cold desert of Kazakstan.

NASA astronauts are not selected on the basis of their flair for writing evocative prose – they are selected because they are brainy, fit, capable of working staggeringly hard doing routine but essential jobs, and fearless.  (This, by the way, rules me out as an astronaut on every single count.)  But on the basis of this letter home, this woman has poetry in her heart and typing fingers, as well as a science brain.

Peggy will spend the next six months with the (irrepressible!) Clay, who has promised to write a song in space and may well inflict it on the unwary newcomers, and with the other members of Expedition 16:  Flight Engineer Yuri Malenchenko,  Flight Engineer Daniel M. Tani; Flight Engineer Leopold Eyharts from France; Flight Engineer Garrett Reisman; and Spaceflight Participant Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor.

If you have any idle moments, check out their progress from time to time; the link is on the right of this page.

Photo Gallery


The ISS in space, seen against a blue Earth.


Rick Mastracchio and Clay Anderson, space walking.

peggy-gets-a-haircut-from-commander-valery-korzun.jpg Peggy gets a haircut…


Peggy looks at some soy beans that she’s grown in space.


Rick Mastracchio, still spacewalking…er, looks like they’re not going to let him back in….

All photographs reproduced by kind permission of NASA, who claim no copyright on images used for non-commercial purposes.

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