Whitson journeys the stuff of legend

Whitson journeys the stuff of legend
Rice grad tells of adventures in space during Centennial Celebration

Rice News staff

If you’re a Rice student who has thoughts of becoming an astronaut, you should have been at Janice and Robert McNair Hall’s Shell Auditorium Nov. 7. There, Peggy Whitson ’86 gave students a clue about what constitutes “The Right Stuff” these days.

As part of Rice’s Centennial Celebration Lecture Series during homecoming, Whitson delivered a multimedia show about her time aloft as commander of the international space station (ISS). Afterward she let slip she’s on the NASA committee that will choose the next round of astronauts, including those who may be bound for the moon and, perhaps, Mars.

As part of Rice’s Centennial Celebration Lecture Series during
homecoming, Peggy Whitson ’86 delivered a multimedia show about her time aloft as
commander of the international space station.

A bioscience student asked Whitson, a biochemist herself, whether she’d heard rumors that NASA was no longer looking for specialists in her field. She responded with a recollection about a teacher at her undergraduate alma mater, Iowa Wesleyan College, who was pressing her to give up her dreams of space and become a doctor.

”She said, ‘I’m going to take you to the University of Iowa so you can see their medical school,”’ recalled Whitson, who accepted the offer when she realized space pioneer James Van Allen (for whom Earth’s Van Allen radiation belt is named) worked there. She talked her professor into arranging a meeting.

”Van Allen told me, ‘Ah, they’re never going to have any more astronauts in five to 10 years. There’s no use for astronauts. It’s all going to be robotics.’ Luckily, he was wrong.”

Life scientists do have a future in space, Whitson said, but applicants have to be prepared for a physically demanding job that also requires talents beyond scientific training. ”Being good in the science field is great. But you also have to have other things you do, something they would consider more operational — flying a plane or scuba diving, something like that,” she said.

Whitson, a Rice adjunct associate professor of biochemistry and cell biology, showed slides and films of her adventures aboard the ISS, which she commanded as part of Expedition 16 from October 2007 to April, when she returned to Earth with two cosmonauts on a Soyuz capsule — which in itself was more of an adventure than anyone had planned.

Her time as commander included risky repairs to the station’s wing-like solar panels, several of which ripped during deployment and required a number of space walks to accomplish the jury-rigged fix. Whitson participated in several of those excursions outside the ISS, earning her the distinction as the most experienced female spacewalker, with nearly 40 hours over six walks, including one on her previous tour of duty at the ISS in 2002.

She’s spent more time in space than any other U.S. astronaut, with 377 days over two missions. ”I would love to go back,” she said. ”I’m not sure I want to train again. It’s a lot of travel and a lot of time, so we’ll see.”

During her time as commander, Whitson, her team and visiting shuttle crews greatly expanded the station, adding three modules and the Canadian Space Agency’s Dextre robot.

Whitson is one of very few people to have launched into space on both the space shuttle and Soyuz (the Soyuz is smoother, she said); she knows of only two other Americans and three Russians who have done so. Coincidentally, she’s landed on both the shuttle and Soyuz, though that last landing was a tough one.

Because of a malfunctioning explosive bolt that failed to release the Soyuz instrument module, ”it ended up shaking and rattling and rolling us around,” Whitson said. The crew suffered through what she called a ballistic reentry, a steeper than normal path that meant going from zero gravity to eight Gs ”for the longest minute of my life.”

She said landing in a Soyuz, which parachutes onto land instead of rolling onto a runway like the shuttle, feels something like being in a car crash and noted the malfunction put them well off-course. ”It took them a little while to find us with the helicopters, but luckily we started a grass fire when we landed.” 

Whitson has high hopes for the future of NASA and space travel in general, particularly with increased pressure from international competitors. ”In my mind it doesn’t hurt if people are walking around saying, ‘China’s going to beat us back to the moon.'”

Referring to President John F. Kennedy’s famous speech here about the space program, she said, ”Maybe (President-elect) Obama will come back to Rice Stadium and make another announcement.”

About Mike Williams

Mike Williams is a senior media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.