Whitson shining bright next to those soybeans.

While she may have pass-failed her Astronomy course, Bwogger Victoria Arancio has always had a soft spot for science. 

In all my time at Columbia University, never have I seen so many people eager to learn about science. The room—even fifteen minutes before the start of the presentation—was packed, with people finding empty space on the floor to sit and learn about Peggy A. Whitson’s experiences in space. Like Whitson, my dream job as a child was to become an astronaut. When my dreams were crushed by the gravity of the near impossible odds, I decided to look elsewhere; Whitson never stopped looking up.

For some reason, I always thought that being an astronaut just meant that you would enter space, float around in gravity, and maybe collect a rock or two from the moon. In my head, it sounded like a lot of fun and pretty simple work, but Whitson took my understanding of engineering and science to a new level. Like Whitson said, NASA astronauts make their work look incredibly easy, and after her presentation, I can say confidently that Peggy Whitson is one of the most accomplished astronauts in history.

The day Neil Armstrong walked on the moon was the day that Whitson became committed to becoming an astronaut and scientist. Ever since then, she has developed her passion for science with years of schooling, hoping one day to find a herself on a space shuttle. Studying biology and chemistry at Iowa Wesleyan University and later receiving her doctorate degree in biochemistry from Rice University, Whitson knew she was ready to take her research to space. What she didn’t know was how slim her odds were, she said, and despite her challenges, she encouraged students to follow their passions, no matter how challenging they might be.

Whitson is the first civilian and woman to serve as Chief Astronaut of a space mission and, as of April of 2017, has spent the most amount of time in space as a NASA astronaut, completing 665 days in zero gravity. She seemed unfazed by these accomplishments, looking instead to discuss her research and credit her success to her team. Being involved in three Space Expeditions, she did give herself credit for her strong work ethic and willingness to work with others: something that helped her command and work with several different groups of astronauts and scientists.

During her time in space, Whitson performed research on all walls of the space shuttle. Working with lung cells, plants, and being a test subject herself, Whitson and other astronauts worked roughly 12 hour days, in addition to working out for two hours each day to minimize gravity’s effects on bone density. Each day, astronauts experience 16 sunrises and sunsets, communicate with several research centers around the world, and perform maintenance on their ship and on the International Space Station. Whitson’s research has been centered around human biology, testing how human cells behave in space and testing different ways to treat lung cancer, heart diseases, aging, loss of eyesight, and bone density loss. She noted that the work was difficult, but often rewarding; they even had time for fun, whether they had movie nights on Fridays or ate Jell-O on holidays.

The future of space exploration and research appears to be heading towards privatization, which Whitson claims to help neutralize the possible political problems that come with international collaboration. While she would welcome the opportunity to go to Mars, it seems that Whitson has grounded herself for good, keeping her research on Earth moving forward.

The night was organized and sponsored by Columbia Space Initiative, a club run by students interested in Astronomy and engineering. While the event was called Extreme Engineering, the title seems to underscore her arduous work. For many on Earth, people work their 9-5 jobs, go home, and relax; for Whitson, her job and passion became her life. At the end of the question and answer session, Whitson received a standing ovation, something that I never personally experienced outside of a theatrical performance. She smiled inwardly as she repositioned her blue NASA suit.

Peggy Whitson can be summed up in one word: badass. Oh, and her favorite space movie? Aliens.




Image via USDA on Flickr