What did you do last week? Unless it was take a walk in space and break a world’s record while you were at it, Peggy Whitson has you beat.
Remember the book and movie “The Right Stuff” about the early astronauts?Remember how tough and strong and MALE they were? Square-jawed, alfa men. As a girl, I was attracted to them. I was envious of them. I never thought that I could be one. I certainly didn’t, couldn’t fathom that someday a woman almost 60 years old would up there walking in space for her 8th time.
Talk about the right stuff! Peggy Whitson took her 8th walk in space just after her 57th birthday.
I know that you’re thinking that she was an astronaut all her life. Or she is a pilot or an Air Force Officer… but nooo. This was a second career. She didn’t go up in space until she was 42— when most of us are beginning to whine that our bodies are falling apart and worried that we are entering middle-age.
There is nothing particularly special about her beginnings- she’s just one of us. Born and raised in a tiny Iowa town of 32. She was self-described as a very shy girl who wore glasses since kindergarten. Certainly not the description of a powerful astronaut to be, she was a nerd long before nerds were popular. She graduated from high school and went on to study biochemistry and chemistry at Iowa Wesleyan. She went on to get her doctorate at Rice University. Whitson did what one would expect a nerd with a doctorate in biochemistry to do, research and teach. This isn’t to belittle or demean her research with NASA or the Johnson Space Center— I didn’t do anything that cool. I’m not that smart. But it was the stuff of the “Big Bang Theory”, not “The Right Stuff”.
When she was 36 she was chosen as an astronaut candidate and began two years of training and evaluation, after which she was assigned technical duties in the Astronaut Office Operation Planning Branch. It wasn’t until 2002 that spaceflight became a reality for her.
The Expedition 5 crew launched on June 5, 2002 and docked with the International Space Station on June 17. Her first space mission wasn’t a once around the earth kind of thing. It was a six-month stay, where she was the Science Officer who conducted 21 experiments and a FOUR HOUR/25 MINUTE SPACE WALK.
Did I mention she was 42 and this was her first time in space?
Her next expedition wasn’t until she was 47. She spent 191 days up there and spent so much time walking in space that she broke the previous record of 29 hours/18 minutes for women.
- the first female commander of the Internation Space Station
- the first female with eight spacewalks
- setting a record for the most NASA time in orbit, man or woman.
Whitson has always wanted to be a beacon of hope for kids from small midwestern towns. She’s always wanted to show them that they can be and do anything despite humble beginnings.
However, I think her voice speaks just as loudly to those of us who have fewer years left than we’ve lived.
About aging, her mother says of her daughter that, “She doesn’t know she is old”. There in lies our secret. Not to let years or aches define what we want. Make a plan and go after it. Whitson has.
On her own aging, Whitson says that in space, “I have a lot less wrinkles up here”. I guess that’s one thing we just can’t get around, even a badass midlife woman worries about those crows feet.
For more examples of extraordinary women click here to check out my Pinterest Board titled Midlife Badass Women.