Peggy Whitson, record-breaking 'American space ninja', returns to Earth

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Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Just after sunrise on Sunday (1:21 UTC), NASA astronaut and biochemist Peggy Whitson, 57, returned to Earth in Kazakhstan, in a Soyuz capsule, after a 288-day mission in the International Space Station (ISS), bringing her lifetime total days in space to 665, the most for any U.S. astronaut, most for any female astronaut internationally, and eighth overall.

Whitson at a press conference in 2016.
Image: NASA and James Blair.

Whitson was greeted with flowers, a pair of sunglasses and a medical team. All three arriving on the capsule, Whitson, fellow top-ten endurance astronaut Fyodor Yurchikhin, and NASA astronaut Jack Fischer, were carried from the capsule in chairs because they were no longer used to Earth's gravity. Because of Hurricane Harvey, which flooded the Johnson Space Center and much of the rest of Texas the previous week, NASA was unable to send a plane to pick them up at their landing site. Instead the European Space Agency transported all three to Cologne, Germany.

The astronaut left in command of the ISS, Randy Bresnik, had left them with, "We are in your debt for the supreme dedication that you guys have to the human mission of exploration," and called Whitson in particular an "American space ninja."

Whitson's colleagues on the ground said she worked at great speed, continually seeking and performing new experiments. Her team completed work on plant physiology, chemotherapy drugs, and the effects of microgravity on stem cells and human eyes.

Whitson aboard the ISS in 2002.
Image: NASA.

Whitson's home, in Houston, was not destroyed by Hurricane Harvey, though NASA's staff there has experienced some hardship, with many sleeping at Mission Control. Whitson commented, "Any trepidations I might have about returning in the aftermath of a hurricane are entirely eclipsed by all those folks keeping our mission going."

According to the Associated Press, Whitson has broken a few other records: She is the oldest woman to serve in space and the most experienced female spacewalker, at ten spacewalks. She is also the first woman to have commanded the ISS more than once.

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