Since 1963, NASA has appointed the Chief of the Astronaut Office, a senior leadership position for a current astronaut to serve as advisor on astronaut training and operations. In 2009, Peggy Whitson became the first woman to hold that position.
Born in a small town in Iowa on February 9, 1960, Whitson knew she wanted to be an astronaut for most of her life. When women were first selected as astronauts in 1978, she said, “it became more than just a dream.”
Whitson earned a BS in biology and chemistry from Iowa Wesleyan College. In 1985, she earned her doctorate in biochemistry from Rice University. In 1988, she began her work at Johnson Space Center, and in the 1990’s she was an adjunct assistant professor at University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston Texas and at Rice University. She was also a project scientist for the Shuttle-Mir Program and a deputy division chief for medical sciences at NASA-JSC. All before being selected as an astronaut candidate in 1996.
In June of 2002, Whitson left Earth for a six month trip to the International Space Station. She was a science officer during this expedition, and conducted 21 different investigations. Whitson also commanded the NEEMO 5 mission on the Aquarius underwater laboratory, where she lived and worked underwater for two weeks.
Whitson returned to space in 2007, as part of Expedition 16, and she became the first female commander of the ISS during her time there. She was also the first NASA astronaut to return to the ISS for a second mission. During Expedition 16, she completed her fifth spacewalk, bringing her cumulative spacewalk time to 39 hours, 46 minutes. In total, she has spent 376 days in space and is NASA’s most experienced female astronaut. She has said that looking out the windows of the ISS was one of the best parts of her time aboard.
In 2009, Whitson was appointed as NASA’s chief astronaut, and was not just the first and only woman to fill the role but also the first non-pilot. Part of her job was to assign astronauts to missions and managing astronaut training. She left the position in order to return to active flight duty, she should be returning to the ISS as part of Expedition 50, scheduled to launch in November of 2016.
Written by Mary Ratliff