Rice alumna Peggy Whitson prepares for next command aboard International Space Station
The Peggy Factor is back. Or about to be.
When Peggy Whitson ’86 launches from Russia to the International Space Station Nov. 15, she will bring not only a wealth of experience to the mission but also a reputation to uphold.
Whitson, who earned her Ph.D. in biochemistry at Rice and remains an adjunct associate professor of biosciences, is known throughout NASA for her efficiency in completing tasks. And there have been many, both on the ground and as a member of two previous six-month stays at the ISS.
NASA’s ground crews developed the habit of assigning extra work to astronauts during Whitson’s flights because she finished assignments so fast. Thus did an associate coin the term “The Peggy Factor” to explain — or bemoan — the added load.
“I’m hoping I’ll be able to live up to it,” Whitson said of her reputation at a prelaunch briefing at Johnson Space Center. “I’m looking forward to it. The ground teams have lots of reserve science for me to do in case I’m a little ahead.”
On her last flight, Expedition 16 in 2007, Whitson became the first woman to command the station. On the upcoming Expedition 50/51, she will be the first to command it for a second time. She was also the first woman chief of the astronaut office, serving from 2009 until 2012, when she decided to return to active duty. At one time she held the record for the most spacewalking time by a woman, since surpassed by Sunita Williams.
But no woman has spent more time in space. Over two flights, she has logged 377 days, a world record she will extend with every new day during her third six-month stint.
She said she expects returning to the ISS will feel something like moving back into an old apartment, “although the space station has grown since I was there. During Expedition 16, we increased the internal volume by about 30-40 percent, and since then it’s grown another 30 percent.”
Whitson noted the ISS observatory, the cupola, has been added since her last stay, and said she plans to spend as much time taking in the view as possible.
“And we have new modules. (We have) the Japanese scientific module — the largest scientific module on board — and I’m looking forward to doing some research in there. We have U.S. facilities in there as well as the Japanese facilities.
“We have Node 3, which has the regenerative aqua system, and obviously that’s very important for future space travel,” she said. “We have to be able to have a completely closed life-support system on board. So working with that system, the urine reclamation, the water-processing facility, is going to be very interesting to me, not only because I’m a biochemist but just because, for exploration, it’s obviously important technical research we’re doing.”
Whitson’s Rice adviser Kathleen Matthews, the Stewart Memorial Professor of Biosciences and former dean of the Wiess School of Natural Sciences, confirmed her work ethic is second to none.
“She did a set of complicated experiments that lasted for 48 hours, where she had to take points every two hours,” Matthews said. “She would sleep in my office for an hour and a half, get up and do what she needed to do, and then sleep in my office for an hour and a half again.
“Her level of determination to do what needed to be done for something that she was passionate about was evident when she was a graduate student,” said Matthews, who remembered grudgingly taking a call from someone identified as “US Gov” and then delighting in the fact that it was Whitson calling from space to say hello. “She really is extraordinary.”
“I think everybody’s got different skills,” Whitson said. “We have some incredible scientists — wicked smart guys — that I can’t compare to. We have amazing engineers. Everybody has different skills, and one of mine is efficiency. I can get a lot of work done in a relatively short amount of time.
“I think Kathy would agree that I had very good hands in the laboratory. My husband (NASA biochemist Clarence Sams ’83), who also worked in Kathy’s laboratory at Rice, always said he and I had different techniques.
“He was a thinker. He would think about the experiment for two or three days and do the experiment that proved or disproved a particular hypothesis, and have an answer in two or three days,” she said. “And me, I would think there might be these six solutions. And I would say, ‘OK, in three days I can do all six of these and still have an answer.’ It’s just a different approach. That worked out for me because I was very efficient.”
Whitson is looking forward to some novel biochemistry as the crew works through hundreds of science experiments planned for the mission. Among them are stem-cell and cell-culture initiatives that are right in her wheelhouse, she said. “There’s one study looking at oxidative damage and inflammatory response in the human body; we’re looking at markers in the body and comparing them to cardiovascular disease progression.” She said quantifying those markers will be important to future long-range missions.
She also noted they will be doing research comparing compounds for bone regeneration.
Sadly, there’s one milestone Whitson won’t quite achieve this time. She was scheduled to launch from Kazakhstan in early November, which would have given her just enough days in space to set a record for any American aloft. Alas, with her launch moved to mid-November, astronaut Jeff Williams will retain the mark he set on the current Expedition 48/49.
“The original schedule was such that we thought I might break the record, but, well, that’s not going to happen,” she said. “I’ll be a couple of days short. So, it’s not a big deal. I still get to fly in space.”
Follow Whitson on her journey via Twitter at @astropeggy.