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Peggy Whitson

Peggy Whitson aboard the International Space Station on Dec. 18, 2016. 

When Iowa native Peggy Whitson was 9 years old, she watched Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin leave the confines of their lunar module Eagle and walk on the moon while Michael Collins orbited overhead in the command-service module Columbia.

Whitson also could step outside her home in Beaconsfield and watch the stars in the night sky.

“When I was 9 I wanted to be a lot of things,” Whitson said. “Being an astronaut was one of those things. “

Then, in 1978, NASA selected six women for the astronaut corps. All six would fly at least one mission in space, with Sally Ride being the first American woman to do so. Judith Resnik, who died in the Challenger explosion in 1986, was a member of that first group.

“In 1978, that dream of being an astronaut became a goal,” Whitson said. “They picked the first female astronauts. That made it seem real to me.”

Whitson’s desire and passion eventually would take her to new heights, literally, where she would set records.

Whitson will speak Feb. 12 at the University of Iowa facility at 4620 E. 53rd St., Davenport. She will give a presentation about leadership 220 miles above the Earth.

The event is sponsored by the University of Iowa and the University of Iowa Community Credit Union. 

Whitson made three trips to the International Space Station and became the first female commander of the ISS on her second trip, Expedition 16.

She spent a total of 665 days in space, a U.S. record for anyone, male or female. That feat also places her eighth on the world’s all-time space endurance list. She also holds the record for a female on a single long-duration mission.

Whitson also conducted a total of 10 spacewalks and has more spacewalk time than any other female, and contributed to hundreds of experiments in biology, biotechnology, physical science and earth science.

She also was NASA’s first female chief of the astronauts, a position defined by one of the original Mercury astronauts, Donald “Deke” Slayton.

Among the professions NASA sought when Whitson began her pursuit of being a part of the astronaut corps were medical doctors and biochemists, as well as engineers in varied disciplines.

“I was interested in science and biochemistry,” Whitson said, adding that she received her bachelor of science degree in biology and chemistry from Iowa Wesleyan University in Mount Pleasant and her Ph.D. in biochemistry from Rice University in Houston.

Even though she worked for NASA in many capacities as a biochemist and research biochemist, Whitson said it took 10 years of applying for the astronaut corps before she was accepted.

“I didn’t have any idea how tough the competition would be,” she admits.

But it was work she was doing in Russia — a joint science program — that likely caught the attention of NASA, whose leaders thought it would be a good idea to have her and the others working on the project do so in space.

Whitson said that time in space has changed her perspective in many ways.

“It’s hard to go into space and look at the Earth and not come away with a new perspective,” she said.

The view of Earth from space is awesome, “as well as seeing even more stars than you can on a dark Iowa night and recognizing there are other solar systems around those stars.”

“You realize we are one galaxy out of literally billions,” she said. “You get to see how big space is and how small we are by comparison.

“Planet Earth has only one atmosphere and life support system that is very intricate,” Whitson said. It gives a person a “real appreciation for wanting to take care of our planet, our spaceship Earth.”

The women in that 1978 astronaut class were the pathfinders who cleared the way for others, she said. But she had to prove her capabilities and her competence.

For those who want to become astronauts, Whitson has a message. “People need to find an area of math, science or engineering that really motivates them. The process takes a long time and you have to enjoy the journey, so you have to find what you’re passionate about.

“I was challenged to do more than I thought I could,” she said. “Don’t limit yourself. You can do more than you might imagine.

Asked if she would go up again if given the chance, Whitson answered, “In a heartbeat.

“But I think it’s probably time to let some younger people go,” she said. “They deserve a turn, too.”