A FARM girl from Beaconsfield in southern Iowa, astronaut Peggy Whitson has made her mark in the annals of U.S. space exploration.
The 57-year-old Whitson returned to Earth last weekend after spending 91/2 months aboard the International Space Station. The 288-day mission means that she has spent a total of 665 days in orbit, the most of any American and any other woman, during a career with NASA that began in 1989.
Aside from duration, Whitson set other records while on her third -- and likely final -- mission: world's oldest spacewoman, the most experienced female spacewalker (10 covering 60 hours) and the first woman to command the space station twice after her launch last November.
The International Space Station was launched in 2000 and has been described as arguably the most dynamic learning and experimental laboratory on -- or off -- the planet. Multi-national scientific research on the ISS -- a series of interconnected modules traveling at 5 miles per second -- is expected to continue for at least seven more years involving the U.S., Canada, Europe, Russia and Japan.
While space exploration no longer commands the public's attention the way it did during the exhilarating days of the Cold War-era race to the moon in the 1960s, Whitson's achievements are remarkable.
A biochemist who first earned a bachelor's degree from Iowa Wesleyan, Whitson has been characterized as the most efficient astronaut in space. The Associated Press, for example, noted that she set a breakneck pace on all three of her space station expeditions in terms of scientific research, often requiring mission controllers to come up with extra work for her to do.
Yet, in an interview with the Associated Press during the final days in space, she downplayed her place in history.
"I have noted in more than a few interviews that I am not overly comfortable with the praise about the records," she said. "I honestly do think that it is critical that we are continuously breaking records, because that represents us moving forward in exploration.
"I am working on paying forward some of the advice and mentoring that I received on my journey, in hopes that one day those young people will do the same, and look back on a life in which they leapt at the opportunities and broke their own records."
Clearly, Peggy Whitson deserves her country's respect for a job well done and for setting the bar high for future generations of astronauts who follow her into space.