Retired NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson just can’t stay away from space exploration. Even after setting records for time in space during her long and amazing career, she couldn’t pass up the opportunity to return to orbit via the SpaceX program.
On May 21, Whitson and three other private astronauts climbed aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and blasted off on a 12-day mission with Axiom Space that includes docking with the International Space Station. She is serving as the mission’s commander and is no stranger to the space station.
Shortly after the SpaceX Dragon Freedom spacecraft separated from the Falcon 9 rocket on Sunday, Whitson complimented the trip to mission command, calling it “a phenomenal ride” during the exchange.
“Space is where I feel most at home,” she explained on Twitter.
— Peggy Whitson (@AstroPeggy) May 25, 2023
By the time Whitson retired from NASA in 2018, the space pioneer had tallied 665 total days in space across her various missions. That puts her at the top of an illustrious list of our nation’s astronauts who have dedicated their lives to experiencing and studying what it’s like to live beyond our planet.
Whitson broke numerous records during her NASA career. In 2008, on her second trip to the International Space Station, she became the first station commander and the only woman who would hold that role twice in her career, according to Axiom Space.
She was also the International Space Station’s first science officer and the first woman and non-military chief of NASA’s Astronaut Office. As if that weren’t enough, Whitson also holds the record for the most spacewalks by a woman, with a total of 10.
After returning from her last spaceflight in 2017, Whitson told NPR she didn’t think she’d ever get the chance to go back into space and she’d miss that experience.
“Anyone that’s ever gone to space is always wanting to go back,” she said in a 2017 interview. “You get addicted to it.”
Whitson indeed felt the call to return to space, and when the chance came, she seized her opportunity.
Here she is with the Axiom-2 crew during quarantine for two weeks before launch.
Does the word quarantine ring a bell? 🔔#Ax2 Crew is now in a two-week quarantine period to ensure they remain healthy for launch and do not carry any harmful pathogens to the @Space_Station. pic.twitter.com/cj5d2UuBGp
— Axiom Space (@Axiom_Space) May 9, 2023
Axion Mission 2, or Ax-2, launched successfully from Kennedy Space Center Sunday and marks the 10th time that the SpaceX Dragon Crew module carried humans into space. Whitson’s crewmates include pilot John Shoffner and Saudi Arabia’s Ali AlQarni and Rayyanah Barnawi, who is now the first Saudi woman in space. The two Saudi citizens will be the first from their country to visit the space station.
There are now 11 people aboard the ISS including the current international crew, at least for the next week or so!
Whitson’s latest mission will include holding virtual classrooms with schoolchildren and mentoring her fellow astronauts. She’ll also help conduct more than 20 experiments, including a look at how cancer cells behave in low-Earth orbit.
“We are looking at how cancer cells are forming and working in space,” she explained in a pre-flight interview with Axiom Space. “This is going to help the scientists learn even more about how that development occurs.”