On November 19, after two days aboard a Soyuz MS-03 spacecraft, NASA’s Peggy Whitson, along with Russian cosmonaut Oleg Novitskiy and rookie ESA astronaut Thomas Pesquet, docked at the International Space Station (ISS). In doing so, America’s most experienced female astronaut became the oldest woman in space, breaking the former record set by Barbara Morgan who reached the ISS at age 55.
Whitson, who has already spent a combined 377 days in space — the most by any woman — during her two previous missions (2002 and 2007-2008), is no stranger to records. She was the first female non-military pilot to serve as chief of NASA’s astronaut office at the Johnson Space Center and the first woman to command the ISS in 2007-2008. The veteran astronaut will set another first when she takes the ISS lead again during this mission.
Additionally, Whitson’s latest six-month stay at the ISS will push her beyond 534 days in space, breaking the US record set in September by 58-year-old Jeffrey Williams. Also, her six spacewalks, totaling 39 hours, 46 minutes, are second only to fellow US astronaut Sunita Williams, who has conducted seven spacewalks, totaling 50 hours, 40 minutes.
Whitson, who will celebrate her 57th birthday in February 2017 while still aboard the ISS, will spend her final mission conducting more than 250 research investigations and technology demonstrations that cannot be done on Earth. These include investigating the effect of the ISS’s new LED lighting system on the crew’s sleep and cognitive performance, as well as examining the physics, nature, and dynamics of neutron stars — the smallest and densest stars known to mankind.
The extraordinary woman who will have spent nearly a year and half of her life in zero gravity when she returns to Earth in May 2017, believes her senior age and previous experience makes this mission easier. That’s because she knows what to expect on a space flight and how to prioritize the urgency of tasks on the ISS.
While Whitson is the oldest female in space, she is not the oldest astronaut. That honor belongs to John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth. In 1988 at the age of 77, he also became the oldest man in space by serving as a payload specialist on the STS-95 mission aboard the space shuttle Discovery.