Last Updated: Mar 27, 2020
In all the COVID-19 craziness, we’ve had to step away from our normal content a bit. Because of this, our celebration of Women’s History Month fell by the wayside—but we didn’t forget entirely. Please enjoy this in-depth look at a key female historical figure!
Peggy Whitson is one of the most influential female astronauts; she broke records and paved the way for other women throughout her 30-year career, which was defined by her groundbreaking research as well as her outstanding leadership. Considering that Dr. Whitson started her journey as an astronaut in a time when women were discouraged from going into science, her career is a perfect example of a woman finding success even against gender bias.
In honor of Women’s History Month, here’s a look at the amazing life of this influential woman.
Her early life
Peggy Whitson was born and raised in rural Iowa and received a BS in Biology and Chemistry from Iowa Wesleyan University. While she always dreamed of becoming an astronaut, it wasn’t until she saw Sally Ride become the first American woman to visit space that she felt it was actually a dream she could achieve.
In order to pursue this goal, she took on a job as a head researcher at the Johnson Space Center. In her eyes, the research job had only one flaw−it was on the wrong planet. During this time, Dr. Whitson became the project scientist on the Shuttle-Mir program, where she worked with the Russian space program. Her participation in this program led to her appointment on the US-Russian Mission Science Working Group, where she served as the co-chair.
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Her first space mission
During her time at the Johnson Space Center, Dr. Whitson submitted an application to become an astronaut 10 different times—one of the best examples of her never-ending perseverance to achieve her goals. Her first space mission placed her on the crew of Expedition 5. It was on this mission that she took the longest spacewalk of her career: a four-hour, 25-minute mission to install a meteoroid shield.
This led her to serve as the first science officer NASA had ever appointed. As part of her appointment, she was a coordinator for the experiments taking place upon the ship and produced 21 of her own research projects, an impressive accomplishment considering she was only onboard for six months.
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Her most notable work
Dr. Whitson’s work on some of her biggest projects is significant because they resulted in findings that have helped fix problems on Earth in addition to conclusions about how the body reacts in space.
The renal stone experiment
The renal stone experiment unveiled critical information about medical techniques that could alleviate problems with kidneys stones while on Earth. Her research uncovered information on the cause and potential cures for this ailment, information that can—and has—led to the betterment of others. Her findings are still used to help prevent these stones from forming.
Soybean growth work
While in space, Dr. Whitson experimented to learn if it would be possible to grow soybeans on the space station. Soybeans are high in nutrients, and if they could be produced in large quantities in space, it could allow astronauts to perform longer space missions. Through her work, she developed a chemical product called Airocide. After her findings were published, the chemical was bought by a private company and is now used to sanitize many operating rooms in the US, offering a better process for desterilization.
In her experiments in microgravity, Dr. Whitson yet again managed to not only produce new knowledge but find applications for what she learned. The microencapsulation technique she invented has been used to improve the delivery of drugs for the cancer recovery process by reducing the mass of tumors—further demonstrating how her research has been used to positively impact and even save lives.
Her career accomplishments
Dr. Whitson has received many awards throughout her career for her research and other endeavors. She won the NASA Spaceflight award twice and has also been awarded 12 other medals from NASA in categories including exceptional service, technology, patent application, space station redesign, leadership, and many others. Notably, she’s also achieved the highest-ranking position an astronaut can hold—the Chief of the Astronaut Corps—and was also the first female commander of the ISS. Perhaps most impressively, she holds the American record for longest cumulative time in space: 665 days.
Her experience with gender bias
Dr. Whitson has faced much adversity throughout her career due to her gender. When she was young, she believed it wasn’t even possible for her to be an astronaut because she was a girl. Even after establishing her place at NASA, she still found the gender disparity between astronauts evident, like the spacesuits not being fabricated with female bodies in mind or the fact that subconsciously many people in society just cannot imagine a woman in space.
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Even when facing adversity, Dr. Whitson managed to rise above what people thought she was capable of and became the highest-ranking female astronaut. Her story shows that inspiring by example is incredibly important to encouraging more female students to pursue their interests in STEM fields and careers. Just like Sally Ride inspired her, Peggy Whitson has inspired countless other women to pursue their passions, whether in aeronautics or in other fields.
Happy Women’s History Month from CollegeXpress! Want to learn more about influential women? Read about these powerful female figures in education. You can also learn more about STEM majors in our Science and Engineering section.