At 10:38 p.m. EDT yesterday (Monday), veteran NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson—currently aboard the International Space Station (ISS) as a member of the Expedition 50 crew—secured a new record, as the first woman to log a cumulative 500 days in space, across her three-mission career. Her achievement comes less than two weeks after International Women’s Day (IWD) was observed around the world on 8 March. Whitson, a former Chief of NASA’s Astronaut Office, is midway through her third long-duration ISS increment, having previously earned renown as the first woman to command a space station crew between October 2007 and April 2008. She presently also holds records for the oldest women ever to travel into space and the oldest female spacewalker.
Whitson’s achievement places her in an exclusive club of only 20 humans to have exceeded 500 days, or approximately 16.5 months, in space. Most members of that club are Soviet or Russian cosmonauts—with the list currently topped by world space endurance record-holder Gennadi Padalka, who has accrued 878 days across his five missions—and before today, only two U.S. astronauts have entered its exalted ranks. The first was Scott Kelly, who reached a career total of 520 days by the end of his year-long mission in March 2016 and the second was Jeff Williams, who presently stands as the United States’ most experienced astronaut, with a final personal tally of 534 days at the close of his fourth mission, last September. But, significantly, Whitson’s arrival in the 500-day club makes her the first woman to do so.
Selected by NASA for astronaut training in May 1996, Whitson went on to fly a pair of six-month increments to the ISS. She was a Flight Engineer for Expedition 5, launched in June 2002, which saw her become the first NASA Science Officer and return to Earth the following December, only weeks before the tragic loss of Columbia. Whitson next flew to the station in October 2007, taking command of Expedition 16 and leading the outpost through April 2008, during a significant phase of ISS expansion, as the Harmony node, Europe’s Columbus lab and the first elements of the Japanese Kibo facility were delivered. Returning from her second mission, she established herself as the United States’ most flight-seasoned astronaut, with 377 days in orbit, eclipsing previous record-holder Mike Foale.
She later served a three-year tenure as Chief of NASA’s Astronaut Office from October 2009 until July 2012, becoming not only the first woman, but also the first non-military scientist, to do so. Whitson was assigned to the Expedition 50 crew and, when she launched last November, alongside Russian cosmonaut Oleg Novitsky and France’s Thomas Pesquet, she surpassed Shannon Lucid and became the oldest woman ever to venture into space, aged 56. Then, in January 2017, a few weeks shy of her 57th birthday, she exceeded Linda Godwin to become the world’s oldest female spacewalker. Next month, with the departure of the Expedition 50 core crew, Whitson will rotate into the command of Expedition 51, becoming the first woman to lead two discrete space station increments.
Two weeks ago, as the world observed International Women’s Day on 8 March, Whitson’s Expedition 50/51 crewmate Thomas Pesquet tweeted a touching and thought-provoking comment. “Mixed feelings about @womensday,” he wrote. “Why do we still have 364 men’s days per year? Proud to have @AstroPeggy by my side.” At the same time, NASA tweeted a recent image of a group of current and former female astronauts—from early shuttle-era fliers like Anna Fisher and Marsha Ivins to seasoned ISS veterans like Sunita Williams and Kate Rubins and the four women selected back in June 2013—to observe the day. The group was backdropped by an image of Whitson, floating aboard the station.
The records will continue to accumulate for Whitson, as she closes on Kelly and Williams to secure the record for the greatest amount of time ever spent in space by a U.S. national. She is expected to pass Kelly’s cumulative 520 days in the second week of April and will finally eclipse Williams at 5:26 a.m. EDT on 24 April.
According to NASA, Whitson is presently scheduled to return to Earth, alongside Novitsky and Pesquet, on 2 June, wrapping up a 196-day increment, her longest to date. If that date holds, she will log a combined total of 573 days across her three missions, making her the ninth most experienced space traveler of all time. However, speculation has been rife since January that she may remain aboard the ISS until early September, taking advantage of Russia’s decision to reduce its crew complement from three to two members and NASA’s decision to increase the U.S. Orbital Segment (USOS) staff to four astronauts, with a predicted 50-percent increased science yield.
If Whitson’s current increment is increased from 6.5 months to 9.5 months, with a new return date on 3 September, she will secure a personal and empirical record for the longest single space mission ever undertaken by a woman, eclipsing the 199 days logged by Italy’s Samantha Cristoforetti in June 2015. A landing in September will see her chalk-up a single-flight record of 290 days and a career total of 667 days, positioning her as the world’s eighth most experienced spacefarer.
In several instances, Whitson has set and re-set her own records. Having secured the record for the greatest time spent in space by an American in April 2008, she later lost that title to Mike Fincke in May 2011. Whether or not she lands in June or September, one thing is certain: she will regain this record.
And with three U.S. Extravehicular Activities (EVAs) slated for late March and early April—two of which will include Whitson—she can expect to push her spacewalking total beyond the 50-hour and 40-minute record for women, set by Sunita Williams. Counting her EVA in January, and six previous excursions during Expeditions 5 and 16, Whitson’s spacewalking tally currently stands at 46 hours and 18 minutes. Within days, the world can expect to see a new record-holder for the greatest amount of EVA time. Moreover, since both women are currently neck-and-neck on seven EVAs apiece, Whitson’s upcoming eighth and ninth walks will see her secure a record for the largest number of EVAs ever performed by a female spacefarer.
It is a remarkable achievement for women in space. Thus far, in a little over a half-century, 60 women—from Russia’s Valentina Tereshkova in June 1963 to U.S. astronaut Kate Rubins, launched in July 2016—have voyaged into low-Earth orbit. Professionally, they have ranged from a factory worker in the case of Tereshkova to engineers, physicists, geologists, medical doctors, chemists and biochemists and from civilians to military officers. Age-wise, in the case of U.S. astronauts, they have run the gamut from 57 years old in Whitson’s case to Tammy Jernigan, who celebrated her 32nd birthday just a few weeks before launching on her first shuttle mission in mid-1991. However, younger astronauts and cosmonauts have flown from other nations: South Korea’s Yi So-yeon was a few weeks shy of her 30th birthday when she launched to the ISS in April 2008, whilst Helen Sharman was 27 when she became Britain’s first spacefarer in May 1991 and, topping the list, Valentina Tereshkova herself was only 26 at the time of her pioneering voyage.
Among them have been not only Russians and Americans, but also British, Canadians, Japanese, French, South Koreans, Chinese and Italians. Dovetailed into this list are U.S. citizens with dual nationality or from overseas heritage, including India-born Kalpana Chawla, Hispanic-American Ellen Ochoa, Ukrainian-American Heidemarie Stefanyshyn-Piper and Iranian-American Anousheh Ansari. Three African-American women, beginning with Mae Jemison, flew a total of five Space Shuttle missions between September 1992 and April 2010.
The ranks of these pioneering women have included Svetlana Savitskaya, the first female spacewalker, as well as Kathy Thornton, who was first to perform more than one EVA. Indeed, Thornton and fellow astronaut Megan McArthur—who currently serves as Chief of the Mission Support Crew Branch of NASA’s Astronaut Office—are close contenders for having flown higher than any other woman. Both Thornton and McArthur journeyed to the approximately 360-mile (580 km) altitude of the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) in December 1993 and May 2009, respectively. Twelve women, from Savitskaya in July 1984 to Rubins in the summer of 2016, have performed spacewalks to build and maintain three different space stations—from Russia’s Salyut 7 and Mir to today’s ISS—and to repair and service Hubble.
Several women have reached positions of senior leadership, with Whitson becoming the first female to command a space station increment between October 2007 and April 2008. Previously, Eileen Collins had served as the first female pilot and commander of the Space Shuttle. Another veteran female shuttle pilot, Susan Still-Kilrain, together with the late Janice Voss, also jointly hold the record for the shortest interval from landing and launch between two spaceflights. They both flew on STS-83 and STS-94 in April and July 1997.
And, of course, as Whitson’s record creates a further crack in the glass ceiling of female achievements, it is important not to forget the women spacefarers who are no longer with us. Five have died—including Chawla and Laurel Clark in the Columbia tragedy and the first Jewish female astronaut, Judy Resnik, killed aboard Challenger—and tribute must also be paid to those who never made it beyond the 62-mile (100 km) “Karman Line”: including teacher Christa McAuliffe and Patricia Hilliard-Robertson, who lost her life in the aftermath of an airplane accident in May 2001.