Astronaut Peggy Whitson just became the oldest woman in space


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(Photo: NASA)

On Nov. 17, Peggy A. Whitson (Ph.D.) launched aboard a Soyuz rocket as part of Expedition 50/51 bound for the International Space Station, which made her the oldest woman in space at age 56. The mission is her third long-duration mission to the International Space Station. The Iowa native completed two six-month tours of duty aboard the station for Expedition 5 in 2002 and as the station commander for Expedition 16 in 2008. She has accumulated 377 days in space between the two missions, the most for any U.S. woman at the time of her return to Earth. Whitson has also performed six spacewalks, totaling 39 hours and 46 minutes.

From 1981 to 1985, Dr. Whitson conducted her graduate work in Biochemistry at Rice University, Houston, Texas, as a Robert A. Welch Predoctoral Fellow. Following completion of her graduate work, she continued at Rice University as a Robert A. Welch Postdoctoral Fellow until October 1986. Following this position, she began her studies at NASA Johnson Space Center (JSC), Houston, Texas, as a National Research Council Resident Research Associate. From April 1988 until September 1989, Whitson served as the Supervisor for the Biochemistry Research Group at KRUG International, a medical sciences contractor at NASA-JSC. From 1991 to 1997, Whitson was invited to be an Adjunct Assistant Professor in the Department of Internal Medicine and Department of Human Biological Chemistry and Genetics at University of Texas Medical Branch, Galveston, Texas. In 1997, Whitson began a position as Adjunct Assistant Professor at Rice University in the Maybee Laboratory for Biochemical and Genetic Engineering.

From 1989 to 1993, Dr. Whitson worked as a Research Biochemist in the Biomedical Operations and Research Branch at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. From 1991 to 1993, she served as Technical Monitor of the Biochemistry Research Laboratories in the Biomedical Operations and Research Branch. From 1991 to 1992, she was the Payload Element Developer for the Bone Cell Research Experiment (E10) aboard SL-J (STS-47) and was a member of the U.S.-USSR Joint Working Group in Space Medicine and Biology. In 1992, she was named the Project Scientist of the Shuttle-Mir Program (STS-60, STS-63, STS-71, Mir 18, Mir 19) and served in this capacity until the conclusion of the Phase 1A Program in 1995. From 1993 to 1996, Whitson held the additional responsibilities of the Deputy Division Chief of the Medical Sciences Division at Johnson Space Center. From 1995 to 1996, she served as Co-Chair of the U.S.-Russian Mission Science Working Group. In April 1996, she was selected as an Astronaut Candidate and started training in August 1996.

Upon completing two years of training and evaluation, she was assigned technical duties in the Astronaut Office Operations Planning Branch and served as the lead for the Crew Test Support Team in Russia from 1998 to 1999. From November 2003 to March 2005, she served as Deputy Chief of the Astronaut Office. Also in 2003, she served as commander of the fifth NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations (NEEMO) mission. From March 2005 to November 2005, she served as Chief of the Station Operations Branch, Astronaut Office.

Whitson trained as the backup ISS commander for Expedition 14 from November 2005 to September 2006. Whitson also was a member of the 2004 Astronaut Selection Board and chaired the Astronaut Selection Board in 2009. Whitson completed two six-month tours of duty aboard the International Space Station, the second as the station commander for Expedition 16 in April 2008. This was Whitson’s second long-duration spaceflight.

She has accumulated 377 days in space between the two missions, the most for any woman. Whitson has also performed a total of six career spacewalks, adding up to 39 hours and 46 minutes. From October 2009 to July 2012, Whitson served as Chief of the Astronaut Corps and was responsible for the mission preparation activities and on-orbit support of all International Space Station crews and their support personnel. She was also responsible for organizing the crew interface support for future heavy launch and commercially-provided transport vehicles. Whitson was the first female, nonmilitary Chief of the Astronaut Office.

According to NASA.gov, during Expedition 50, researchers will investigate how lighting can change the overall health and well-being of crew members, how microgravity can affect the genetic properties of space-grown plants, and how microgravity impacts tissue regeneration in humans.

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