Astronaut and Rice alumna Peggy Whitson ’86 broke two records in a March 30 spacewalk to install shielding on the International Space Station.
Whitson, who earned her Ph.D. in biochemistry at Rice and serves as an adjunct associate professor of biosciences, made her eighth spacewalk and set a new mark for the most spacewalks ever performed by a woman. Whitson logged 7 hours, 4 minutes of spacewalking time. Her new cumulative spacewalking total of 53 hours, 22 minutes shatters the prior mark by female astronaut Sunita Williams by more than two hours and moves Whitson into the fifth spot all-time.
Whitson launched from Russia to the space station Nov. 15 as a flight engineer on ISS Expedition 50. On her third mission to the space station, Whitson, 57, set a new mark as the oldest woman ever to fly in space. She’s logged more than 500 total days in space, by far the most ever by a woman. Whitson is set to return to Earth in June, and depending upon the exact date, she could break Italian astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti’s record for the longest single spaceflight by a woman: 199 days, 16 hours. If NASA makes good on a proposed plan to extend her stay until September, she’ll also move into the top 10 list for longest human spaceflights.
Whitson’s no stranger to being first. In her initial six-month stint aboard the space station with Expedition 5 in 2002 she became the station’s first science officer and the first NASA astronaut ever to hold that title on any mission. On Expedition 16 in 2007 she became the first woman to command the station, and in 2009 she became the first woman and the first nonpilot to serve as chief of the Astronaut Office at NASA’s Johnson Space Center.