I knew Peggy Whitson was from Iowa but didn’t really pay much attention until I saw a live interview a week ago on CNN. You may have watched President Trump, daughter Ivanka Trump, and NASA astronaut Kate Rubins make the first ultra-definition livestream from space with Whitson on April 24. Trump congratulated Peggy on becoming the longest-serving American in space, passing astronaut Jeff Williams’ record of 534 days.
Whitson, who at 57 is the oldest woman to fly in space, blasted off on Expedition 50 for the International Space Station on November 18, 2016, and will return home in September. Having flown into space since 2002, Whitson is also the first woman to command the International Space Station and is now in command for the second time. In addition, she holds the woman’s record for the longest amount of time spent outside the spacecraft (more than fifty hours).
Whitson’s history is fascinating, as are all stories of those who break barriers that no one would have thought possible at the time. Like many native Iowans, Peggy Whitson was born on a farm in Mount Ayr and grew up in Beaconsfield, which had a population of fifteen when she was born and was still fifteen in 2010. As Iowa’s smallest incorporated community, Beaconsfield not only produced one of our world’s most celebrated astronauts but is also the place where the giant supermarket chain Hy-Vee traces its roots.
Whitson’s father was an engineer and her mother, a teacher, still lives on the farm. From her parents, who worked day and night on the farm, Peggy learned the value of hard work. In an interview last year with the Des Moines Register, Peggy said, “Drive and desire was something I was raised with. It became a very important part of how I’ve become. I like to say I’m determined; some people would call it stubborn. It depends on your perspective.”
Peggy grew up wanting to become an astronaut and just happened to graduate from high school in 1978, the year that the first female astronauts were named. It was then that Whitson realized her goal might actually be attainable. She graduated from United Methodist-affiliated Iowa Wesleyan University with a degree in biology and received a PhD degree in biochemistry from Rice University four years later.
Explaining her passion for biology, Whitson said, “Maybe it was teachers, but I think really, maybe, growing up on a farm and being around animals and plants and seeing things grow, I think is probably why I was interested in that… It struck a chord in me; the farmer’s daughter thing.”
Whitson’s story has a lot to teach us about leadership. First, she was never discouraged from following her heart. In a time when women still experienced many barriers, Whitson knew who God had called her to become and never wavered. In fact, she worked at NASA for thirteen years before ever becoming an astronaut. Whitson was one of eight astronauts selected out of eight thousand applicants. She just kept working hard and never gave up her dream.
I can’t help but think that Whitson’s liberal arts education at Iowa Wesleyan was an important time in her life, especially considering the university’s mission statement, “Iowa Wesleyan University is a transformational learning community whose passion is to educate, empower and inspire students to lead meaningful lives and careers.” How might our world be changed if every girl and boy had the opportunity, nurturing, and mentoring to achieve their dreams?
Second, Whitson had the perseverance, patience, and dedication to keep working toward her goals, even when it took many years for her to actually fly in space. Whitson said, “When NASA picked the first set of astronauts, I think that was when I decided I wanted to become an astronaut. Still, I knew very little about the whole process or what it would take to get in. But I do have a healthy dose of that stubborn thing going for me which, I think, kept me pursuing the goal.”
In last week’s live-streaming on CNN, students had the opportunity to ask questions of Whitson through Facebook. When an eleven-year-old girl asked how she could become an astronaut, Peggy said that students should take classes in math, science, and engineering. But, at the end, she advised them to pursue something that stimulates their minds and that they love. “You can become anything you can dream about. Anyone who works hard and puts in a lot of effort can do it!” Whitson reminded the children that our world needs engineers and scientists and astronauts, but whatever their passion is, they need to have the courage to take the next step.
Third, life-long learning, an intense curiosity about the world, and working smart are skills that enable human beings to produce at maximum capacity. In reality, very little in life comes easily, and it sometimes takes years and decades of hard work and dedication to achieve our goals. After Whitson became the first woman Chief of the Astronaut Corps and was entering the later part of her career, she realized that her best days could still be ahead of her.
Once Whitson made the decision to apply for Expedition 50, she worked hard to pass the medical tests necessary to have the physical strength to perform space walks, of which she had already done six. She passed the tests and was selected from a group of 43 active astronauts to join the November 2016 launch. The crew is working on station maintenance, growing Chinese cabbage, and doing medical experiments such as studying bone cell growth in order to minimize bone density losses in space.
When asked why she still wanted to fly when many people her age were winding down their careers, Whitson said, “What amazed me the first time in space (on Expedition 5) is, ‘Oh my gosh, so much color and texture.’ I don’t know if it has to do with the clarity because there are no particulates in the air, but you see so much.
“Outside, on a spacewalk, takes it up another notch. You are traveling 17,500 miles an hour across the planet. You are looking down with views going past you. It’s like being a bird maybe, the perspective of flying over the Earth.
“One of the most beautiful sights is when the rim of the Earth is bright on one side, and you see this defined line of the atmosphere. You see how close and thin it is. We’ve got to be careful. We’ve got to take care of this planet.”
As to the value of experience, Whitson said, “I think it gets easier as you get older. You know what to worry about and what not to worry about.”
Whitson said in a recent CBS interview, “Breaking records has never been my goal. I think it’s important that we’re continually pushing our limits and showing that we can extend beyond what we have done before.”
This is the time of year when graduations take place, and speakers encourage our young people to dream big, see possibility, and focus on achieving their goals. But heroes (saints) like Peggy Whitson inspire us all, from young to old.
One of my favorite hymns is “I Sing a Song of the Saints of God.” The lyrics were written by Lesbia Scott in 1929 as a teaching tool for her children. Eighty-eight years later, the words still ring true, and I am sure that if Scott were alive today, she would change just one line:
I sing a song of the saints of God,
Patient and brave and true,
Who toiled and fought and lived and died
For the Lord they loved and knew.
And one was a doctor,
And one was a queen,
And one was a shepherdess on the green (an astronaut in the sky)
They were all of them saints of God – and I mean,
God helping, to be one too.
Will you, God helping, be one, too?