Women in stem: Dr. Peggy Whitson

 In Blog, Technology, Women in STEM

Dr. Peggy Whitson is a record-breaking astronaut who has spent more time in space than any other American. She was also the first woman to command the International Space Station and was one of the oldest active astronauts in NASA’s program. Peggy Whitson, a leader to other women in stem, is an amazing role model for young girls interested in science and space exploration, and her story will inspire many people around the world.

Childhood and Personal Life

Peggy Annette Whitson was born on February 9, 1960. Her parents were farmers in Iowa. She was determined to become an astronaut after watching the moon landing on television as a child. Her early education was in a one-room schoolhouse, and she later graduated from high school as a co-valedictorian. Peggy Whitson then attended Iowa Wesleyan College, where she earned her undergraduate degree in biology and chemistry. She attended Rice University and earned her doctorate in biochemistry in 1985. While attending Rice University she was a Robert A. Welch Predoctoral Fellow.

Peggy Whitson married Clarence Sams who she met while obtaining her doctorate. Dr. Sams also has a Ph.D. in biochemistry from Rice University and has worked for NASA for over 30 years. He is the director of the Cell and Molecular Research Laboratory in Houston Texas. They have been married for over 30 years.

Research and Teaching Career

After completing her degrees, Dr. Peggy Whitson began working as a research biochemist at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston Texas. She was a researcher working as the National Research Council Resident Research Associate. From April 1988 to September 1989, she served as the Supervisor for the Biochemistry Research Group at KRUG International, a medical sciences contractor at NASA-JSC. Research and teaching have been prominent in her career. From 1991 through 1997, Whitson was invited to be an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Internal Medicine and the Department of Human Biological Chemistry and Genetics at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, Texas. In 1997, Whitson began a position as an adjunct assistant professor at Rice University in the Maybee Laboratory for Biochemical and Genetic Engineering.

NASA Career

Dr. Whitson joined NASA in 1986 as a research biochemist but moved up the ranks within NASA quickly. From 1989 to 1993, Dr. Whitson worked as a Research Biochemist in the Biomedical Operations and Research Branch at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. From 1991 to 1993, she served as Technical Monitor of the Biochemistry Research Laboratories in the Biomedical Operations and Research Branch. From 1991 to 1992, she was the Payload Element Developer for the Bone Cell Research Experiment (E10) aboard SL-J (STS-47) and was a member of the U.S.-USSR Joint Working Group in Space Medicine and Biology.

In 1992, she was named the Project Scientist of the Shuttle-Mir Program (STS-60, STS-63, STS-71, Mir 18, Mir 19) and served in this capacity until the conclusion of the Phase 1A Program in 1995. The Shuttle–Mir program was a collaborative 11-mission space program between Russia and the United States that involved American Space Shuttles visiting the Russian space station Mir, Russian cosmonauts flying on the Shuttle, and an American astronaut flying aboard a Soyuz spacecraft to engage in long-duration expeditions aboard Mir. From 1993 to 1996, Whitson held the additional responsibilities of the Deputy Division Chief of the Medical Sciences Division at Johnson Space Center. She served as Co-Chair of the U.S.-Russian Mission Science Working Group from 1995 to 1996.

In April 1996, Dr. Whitson was selected as an astronaut candidate started training in August 1996 and completed two years of intensive training. She was assigned technical duties in the Astronaut Office Operations Planning Branch and served as the lead for the Crew Test Support Team in Russia from 1998 to 1999. From November 2003 to March 2005, she served as Deputy Chief of the Astronaut Office.

Expedition 5

Peggy Whitson flew into space for the first time on June 5, 2002, as a flight engineer on Expedition 5 to the ISS, aboard the space shuttle Endeavour on mission STS-111. The Expedition crew docked with the ISS on June 7, 2002. While onboard the ISS during her six-month stay, she conducted more than 20 experiments in microgravity and human life sciences and operated and installed commercial payloads and hardware systems. She was named the first NASA Science Officer by NASA Administrator O’Keefe. She installed the Mobile Base System, the S1 truss segment, and the P1 truss segment, using the Space Station Remote Manipulator System. She performed a four-hour and 25-minute spacewalk to install micrometeoroid shielding on the Zvezda Service Module wearing the Russian Orlan spacesuit. A spacewalk is called an EVA Extravehicular Activity.  After nearly 185 days in space, she returned to Earth aboard STS-113, landing on December 7. Completing her first flight, Dr. Whitson logged 184 days, 22 hours, and 14 minutes in space.


Dr. Whitson served as commander of the fifth NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations (NEEMO) mission. NEEMO is a NASA analog mission that sends astronauts, scientists, and engineers to live in Aquarius, an underwater laboratory. Analog missions are undertaken on Earth in various environments that simulate aspects of the mission to other worlds including the moon, asteroids, and Mars. These specialized field mission locations are chosen based on their physical similarities to the extreme space environments of a target mission. For NASA, the Aquarius habitat and its surroundings provide a convincing analog for space exploration. Much like space, the undersea world is a hostile, alien place for humans to live. NEEMO crew members experience some of the same challenges there that they would on a distant asteroid, planet, or Moon. During NEEMO missions, the aquanauts are able to simulate living on a spacecraft and test spacewalk techniques for future space missions. Working in space and underwater environments requires extensive planning and sophisticated equipment. The undersea scenario also has the advantage of allowing NASA to “weight” the aquanauts, simulating different gravity conditions.

Expedition 16

Expedition 16 was the 16th expedition to the International Space Station (ISS). The crew launched on October 10, 2007, aboard the Soyuz TMA-11. Dr. Whitson was commander on this mission with flight engineer 1 Yuri Malenchenko. The third crew member position for this expedition was filled by astronauts rotating in and out via shuttle flights and included Clay Anderson, Dan Tani, Leo Eyharts, and Garrett Reisman. However, the third person to launch with Whitson and Malenchenko was spaceflight participant Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor, the first Malaysian in space.

Dr. Whitson was the first female commander of the International Space Station (ISS). As commander, Whitson oversaw the first expansion of the station’s living and working space in more than six years. The station and visiting space shuttle crews added the Harmony connecting node, the European Space Agency’s Columbus laboratory, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency’s Kibo logistics pressurized module, and the Canadian Space Agency’s Dextre robot.

Whitson performed five spacewalks (EVA) to conduct assembly and maintenance tasks outside the complex. On 18 December 2007, during the fourth spacewalk of Expedition 16 to inspect the S4 starboard Solar Alpha Rotary Joint (SARJ), the ground team in Mission Control informed Whitson that she had become the female astronaut with the most cumulative EVA time in NASA history, as well as the most EVAs, with her fifth EVA. Three hours and 37 minutes into the spacewalk, Whitson surpassed NASA astronaut Sunita Williams with a total time at that point of 29 hours and 18 minutes. At the completion of Whitson’s fifth EVA, the 100th in support of ISS assembly and maintenance, Whitson’s cumulative EVA time became 32 hours, and 36 minutes, which placed her in 20th place for total EVA time.

Whitson along with Pamela Melroy who commanded the STS-120 marked the first time that two (2) female mission commanders were in orbit simultaneously. STS-20 was docked with the ISS from October 25, 2007 until November 5, 2007.

Whitson and Malenchenko undocked from the station and returned to Earth on April 19, 2008, aboard the Soyuz TMA-11 spacecraft. Upon reentry, the Soyuz TMA-11 spacecraft suffered a minor malfunction; the equipment module failed to separate properly from the reentry module. This caused the craft to follow a very steep ballistic descent. As a result, the crew experienced forces up to 10 G, ending up about 260 miles (418 km) west of the targeted landing site. All three crew members were fine and in good health despite the rough landing. Whitson logged 192 days in space during this expedition.

Expedition 16 Crew

After Expedition 16, Dr. Whitson served as the Astronaut Office’s director, overseeing all NASA astronaut activities, including crew selection and training from October 2009 to July 2012. She was the first and only woman to serve as Chief Astronaut. She also was the first civilian (non-pilot) to fill that position. Job duties included monitoring the development and implementation of effective training programs to assure the flight readiness of available pilot and non-pilot personnel for assignment to crew positions on manned space flights; furnishing pilot evaluations applicable to the design, construction, and operations of spacecraft systems and related equipment; and providing qualitative scientific and engineering observations to facilitate overall mission planning, formulation of feasible operational procedures, and the selection and conduct of specific experiments for each flight. The Chief is currently responsible for managing Astronaut Office resources and operations and helps develop astronaut flight crew operation concepts and crew assignments for future spaceflight missions. Since the Shuttle era, the Chief of the Astronaut Office often returns to active duty once their term is complete. She resigned when she went back on active flight status for missions Expedition 50/51/52.

Expedition 50/51/52

Whitson launched on November 17, 2016, as part of Expedition 50/51/52 and returned safely on Earth on September 3, 2017. She contributed to hundreds of experiments in biology, biotechnology, physical science, and Earth science, welcomed several spacecraft cargo ships delivering tons of supplies and research experiments, and with her crewmates participated in a combined six spacewalks to perform maintenance and upgrades to the station. Whitson conducted four of the six spacewalks, bringing her career total to ten. With a total of 665 days in space, Whitson claimed the U.S. record, placing eighth on the all-time space endurance list, at the time of her return to Earth.

Expeditions 50/51/52 happened partially concurrently for many astronauts. Expeditions started and concluded with the docking and undocking of Soyuz and other spacecraft. Some astronauts and cosmonauts transferred from one Expedition to the following one. Sometimes with changing job positions while staying on the International Space Station for extended periods. Some went home during different stages of the Expeditions.

Peggy Whitson, at age 56, became the world’s oldest woman to fly into space after the launch of Soyuz MS-03. She joined Expedition 50 with 5 other crew members. Whitson took part in 2 spacewalks during Expedition 50. The first was on January 6, 2017. Whitson and Shane Kimbrough installed adapter plates and cables for new batteries on the 3A power channel, took pictures of AMS, and the removal of camera and routing of Ethernet cable. This EVA set the record for oldest female spacewalker. She tied with Sunita Williams for the total number of spacewalks by a female (7 Spacewalks). This EVA lasted 6 hours and 32 minutes. Whitson’s cumulative EVA time became 46 hours, 18 minutes, which placed her in 13th place for total EVA time.

Her second (for this mission and eighth total) spacewalk (EVA) was on March 30, 2017, again it was with Kimbrough. The task they completed were EXT-1 MDM removal & replace with new EPIC MDM, Node 3 axial shields install including replacing a lost shield with the PMA-3 cover, PMA-3 cummerbunds install, PMA-3 cover removal, PMA-3 connections, close Node 3 port CDC, Inspection & cleaning of the Earth-facing berthing port of the Harmony module. This EVA lasted 7 hours and 4 minutes.

Whitson is the first woman to command two (2) ISS expeditions after taking control of Expedition 51 on April 17, 2017. Some of the projects from Expedition 51 were the crew started up their human research and maintenance on the U.S. spacesuits. Whitson explored how new lights installed in the station were affecting the crew’s health and wellness. Pesquet dumped cooling water and purged gas buildup from the water tanks inside the spacesuits in preparation for the May 12 spacewalk. Throughout the Expedition, the crew swapped between their roles as orbital scientists to maintenance technicians, from a morning of observing what happens to materials heated to extreme temperatures in zero-g to flushing water tanks in Progress M-66.

Some other research was growing Chinese cabbage and Red Romaine lettuce in the Veggie facility. Veg-03 had a goal of further demonstrating the proof of concept for the Veggie plant growth chamber and planting pillows. Long duration missions in the solar system require a fresh food supply to supplement the crew’s diet. Previous investigations focused on productivity, but the limited quarters of the ISS hampered large-scale crop production tests.

The crew installed and configured the JAXA Protein Crystal Growth #12 experiment in the JEM Ryutai rack. The two canisters contained 47 protein samples prepared by Russian and Japanese researchers to grow high-quality proteins in a microgravity environment at constant temperature for 6 weeks in order to develop drugs for multi-drug-resistant bacteria, Alzheimer’s disease, muscular dystrophy, and periodontitis.

During Expedition 51, Whitson completed 2 more spacewalks. On May 12, 2017, Dr. Whitson and Jack D. Fischer replaced a large avionics box that supplied electricity and data connection to science experiments. They also installed a connector that routed data to the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, repaired insulation at a connection point for the Japanese Robotic Arm, and installed a protective shield on the Pressurized Mating Adapter-3. This EVA lasted 4 hours and 13 minutes. The second EVA for Expedition 51 was again Dr. Whitson and Fischer, where they replace a failed Multiplexer-Demultiplexer (MDM) and Installed two Wireless Communication Anntenna’s to enhance wireless communication for future spacewalks. This EVA lasted 2 hours and 26 minutes.

On June 1, 2017, Expedition 51 ended, and Whitson transferred command of the ISS to Russian Cosmonaut Fyodor Yurchikhin. Expedition 52 officially began with the departure of the Soyuz MS-03 on June 2, 2017, taking home 2 astronauts. Due to a decision to cut down the number of participating Russian cosmonauts in 2017, only two crew members were launched on Soyuz MS-04, which brought the ISS total crew down to five people. However, it was later decided that Peggy Whitson would stay on board longer, transferring from Expedition 51 to maintain a full crew of six astronauts over the summer. There was one spacewalk on Expedition 52, but Whitson did not participate. Research and resupply was a primary objective of Expedition 52. Multiple cargo ships including the SpaceX Dragon CRS-11, Roscosmos Progress MS-06, and the SpaceX CRS-12 Dragon, docked with the ISS to deliver supplies.

June Research

Fischer and Whitson performed observations of mold and bacteria samples for student-led biology experiments and protein crystal sample experiments. To learn about healing processes and the effectiveness of osteoinductive drugs in low gravity, Dr. Whitson cared for rodents at the Rodent Habitat Facility. She performed experiments for a cardiac stem cell study to understand the effects of microgravity on the aging process. Fischer and Whitson set up a seedling growth botany study to investigate the effects of light and microgravity on Arabidopsis thaliana. Fisher was also the subject of a Vascular Echo study that examined changes in blood vessels and the heart while in space and their recovery back on Earth. Yurchikhin studied pain sensation in space to help researchers develop proposals to improve health care in orbit.  Yurchikhin, Whitson, and Fischer also took body measurements for the in-flight conditions that could be compared to pre-and post-flight conditions. Whitson started a cancer study to evaluate antibody-drug conjugates, which can increase the effectiveness of chemotherapy while reducing its side effects.

July Research

Whitson tested her ability to work on interactive tasks as part of a Fine Motor Skills study to measure how motor skills are affected by long-term microgravity exposure, different phases of adaptation and recovery after returning to Earth. Fischer finished operations with a Group Combustion Module experiment, where droplets of decane were arranged on a thin-fiber lattice so that the flame and temperature distribution could be measured as the flame spreads. Whitson and Fischer also collected their own blood, urine, and saliva samples for the Fluid Shifts experiment that measured how much fluid shifts from the lower body to the upper body in microgravity and the effects on the human eye. Whitson started the Mag3D experiment that magnetizes cells to make them easier to handle in microgravity. Whitson also set up gear for a Two Phase Flow experiment that studied interfacial behaviors of perfluorohexane, an electronic coolant, under different conditions. Fischer used the exercise bike to research the effectiveness of high intensity, low volume exercise, which showed that maximum intensity exercise appears better for aerobic capacity than normal intensity exercise in microgravity.

August Research

Nespoli and Bresnik recorded their experiences with space headaches, researchers later concluded that changes in cerebral blood flow and intracranial pressure caused them, opposed to the theory that it was space motion sickness. Fischer and Whitson studied a new drug’s effects on mouse bone atrophy, current therapies cannot restore lost bone, but the new drug from the University of California at Los Angeles had the potential to rebuild bone and block further bone loss.

Peggy Whitson, Jack Fischer, and Fyodor Yurchikhin departed the ISS on September 2, 2017, and touched down on September 3 in their Soyuz MS-04 capsule. The duration of her stay in space during expeditions 50/51/52 was 289 days, 5 hours, and 1 minute. Whitson completed her third long-duration mission which brought her career total to 665 days in space, a new record for the U.S. and at the time 8th on the all-time list of days in space.  She currently (as of November 9, 2021) ranks 9th with a total of 665.932 days in space.

Dr. Peggy Whitson was selected as a NASA astronaut in 1996. Her first mission was on STS-111 in 2002, and her last flight was on Soyuz MS-03 in 2017. Dr. Whitson has been involved in many space missions over the years. She accrued a total of 665 days in space throughout her career. This total was more time in space than any other woman worldwide and any other American. As of April 2021, she is ranked ninth on the list of total time spent in space and fifth in total cumulative time for spacewalks with 60:21 hours:minutes.  In June 2020, Whitson was a guest (along with two imposters) on an ABC-TV To Tell the Truth episode in which Patti LaBelle correctly selected her as the record-holding time in space astronaut.

Life After NASA

Dr. Whitson retired from NASA on June 15, 2018. Retirement did not last long. She became a consultant for Axiom Space. Her official title is Astronaut, Director of Human Space Flight. In January 2021 it was announced that she is the backup commander of Axiom Mission 1 (Ax-1). Axiom confirmed that Dr. Whitson has been selected to be commander of Axiom Mission 2 (Ax-2).

Axiom Space is in the process to be the first-ever private mission to the International Space Station (ISS). Ax-1 crew members plan to spend 8 days aboard the ISS conducting research developed for microgravity on behalf of major organizations ranging from hospitals to technology companies. Another ambitious mission of Axiom Space is to construct the world’s first commercial space station. Construction is currently underway with goals of completing the final assembly and integration to prepare for a late 2024 launch of the first section of the next-generation platform for breakthrough innovation in low-Earth orbit. Whitson says her mission will help open doors for more ambitious crewed missions into space. “The future of spaceflight depends on us building an infrastructure that enables us to step further and further away from Earth,” she says. “This step by Axiom, introducing private astronauts to the space station, is going to be just the initial step.”

Dr. Peggy Whitson’s record-breaking career is a testament to her hard work and dedication. She made incredible contributions to space exploration and many firsts for Women in STEM. Her tenure as commander of ISS Expedition 16 set a new precedent for women in space. Her time as an astronaut included the most spacewalks by a female American. Whitson spent 665 days in space during her three long-duration tours of duty to the ISS, which made her NASA’s most-experienced astronaut. Her total of 10 career spacewalks and their combined duration of 60 hours 21 minutes were records for a female astronaut. She remains an active advocate for science education and exploration. Thank you for being such an amazing role model.

Awards, Honors, and Recognitions

Dr. Peggy Whitson has been honored with many awards and honors.

  • Academic Excellence Award (1978)
  • State of Iowa Scholar (1979)
  • President’s Honor Roll (1978–1981)
  • Orange van Calhoun Scholarship (1980)
  • Summa cum laude from Iowa Wesleyan College (1981)
  • Robert A. Welch Predoctoral Fellowship (1982–1985)
  • Robert A. Welch Postdoctoral Fellowship (1985–1986)
  • NASA-JSC National Research Council Resident Research Associate (1986–1988)
  • Krug International Merit Award (1989)
  • NASA Sustained Superior Performance Award (1990)
  • Selected for Space Station Redesign Team (March to June 1993)
  • NASA Certificate of Commendation (1994)
  • American Astronautical Society Randolph Lovelace II Award (1995)
  • NASA Silver Snoopy Award (1995)
  • NASA Tech Brief Award (1995)
  • Group Achievement Award for Shuttle-Mir Program (1996)
  • NASA Space Act Award for Patent Application
  • Patents awarded (1997, 1998)
  • NASA Space Act Board Award (1995, 1998)
  • NASA Exceptional Service Medal (1995, 2003, 2006)
  • NASA Space Flight Medal (2002, 2008)
  • NASA Outstanding Leadership Medal (2006)
  • “Women on the Move” Award (2010)
  • Distinguished Alumni Award, Rice University (2010)
  • Medal “For Merit in Space Exploration” (Russia, April 12, 2011) – for outstanding contribution to the development of international cooperation in manned space flight
  • Iowa Aviation Hall of Fame (2011)
  • BioHouston Women in Science Award (2011)
  • Houston’s 50 Most Influential Women of 2011
  • Glamour’s Woman of the Year (2017)
  • Women in Aviation Lifetime Achievement Award (2017)
  • TIME 100 Most Influential People in the World (2018)
  • International Air and Space Hall of Fame (2018)
  • Women in Space Science Award (2019)

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