Peggy Whitson breaks another record in space
Can new perspectives make us wiser? This weekend astronaut Peggy Whitson returned to Earth after a record-breaking flight and 665 days of a literally new perspective on our planet.
In January 1978, NASA chose its first ever female astronauts. The six women inspired people around the world — including Peggy Whitson. The teenager lived on a farm in Iowa, in a town with a population of just 15. She graduated from high school later that year with a single goal: to become an astronaut.
Almost three decades later, she is not just living her dream; she is breaking multiple records while doing so.
She set several records while in orbit: her total time of 665 days off the planet – 288 days on this mission alone – exceeds that of any other American and any other woman worldwide.
She is the world’s oldest spacewoman, at age 57, and most experienced female spacewalker, with ten. She also became the first woman to command the space station twice following her launch last November.
When NASA introduced the world to its first ever astronauts in 1959, it did not intend them to be celebrities. But the “Mercury Seven” captured the US people’s imagination. The media portrayed them as American heroes and modern-day pioneers, on the cutting edge of the space race. Later, Neil Armstrong became a household name, as had Yuri Gagarin in Russia.
These days, not all astronauts are instantly famous — but they still fascinate us.
To be an astronaut remains a common childhood dream. But it is not easy. NASA and ESA (the US and European space agencies) both require a degree in science, maths or engineering. Pilots need at least 1,000 hours of flying experience. Eyesight, fitness, mental health and even height must all meet strict requirements.
Once hired, you face gruelling physical training, intense Russian language courses, and trips in the “vomit comet”. And yet those who make it through say that it is the best job in the world. Are they right?
Suited to space?
“Of course!” cry space fans. All of that training would pale in comparison to the moment you looked down at Earth for the first time. Being an astronaut is not just a fun, rewarding job — it completely changes your perspective on life. Astronauts often return feeling much wiser. “I love being up here,” said Whitson recently. “I am constantly trying to squeeze every drop out of my time here.”
That is all very romantic — but the reality of being an astronaut is tough, others point out. Living in space can cause several health problems, including motion sickness, wasting muscles, and fingernails falling off. The cramped conditions, hundreds of miles from home, can cause astronauts to feel very isolated. Only a very particular kind of person can be up to the job.
- Would you like to be an astronaut?
- Should astronauts be as famous as pop stars?
- Write a letter to NASA, applying to become an astronaut. What skills do you have that you think would be useful in space?
- Choose one of NASA’s first female astronauts from 1978 and write a short biography of her.
Some People Say...
“Everyone should try to be more like an astronaut.”
What do you think?
Q & A
- What do we know?
- Just 536 people have been in space. Despite its rarity, becoming an astronaut is still a popular ambition. Last year, more than 18,300 people applied to be one of NASA’s 2017 astronaut trainees, almost three times as many as 2012.
- What do we not know?
- Who has been selected for the 2017 class. Nor do we know how much longer government agencies like NASA and ESA will be the main route to space. Private companies like Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin and SpaceX are all hoping to send tourists into space in the next few years.
- Six women
- Shannon Lucid, Margaret Rhea Seddon, Kathryn Sullivan, Judith Resnik, Anna Fisher, and Sally Ride. All six women eventually flew in space.
- The overall record for the most time spent in space is held by Russian astronaut Gennady Padalka. He has spent 879 days in space, over five missions.
- Mercury Seven
- Scott Carpenter, Gordon Cooper, John Glenn, Gus Grissom, Wally Schirra, Alan Shepard, and Deke Slayton were all former military test pilots.
- Neil Armstrong
- Hired by NASA in 1962, Armstrong went on in 1969 to become the first person to walk on the moon.
- Yuri Gagarin
- In 1961 Gagarin completed an orbit of Earth, becoming the first person in space.
- Vomit comet
- An aircraft which simulates zero gravity in order to train astronauts.
- Wasting muscles
- The lack of gravity causes the atrophy (wasting away) of muscles due to lack of use. This can have significant long-term effects.
- Space suits are designed to simulate Earth’s atmosphere during space walks. But this is hard to achieve in the gloves, leading to the risk of hand injuries.