The world’s most experienced female space traveler is tonight enjoying her first full day back on Earth, after returning from a third trip to the International Space Station (ISS). Veteran astronaut Peggy Whitson—the first woman to fly as many as three long-duration space missions—wrapped up 288 days, 5 hours and 1 minute across her 9.5 months of service on the Expedition 50, 51 and 52 crews. She became the first woman to command a space station for a second time and secured the world record for the greatest number of spacewalking hours by a female. All told, across her three-flight career, Whitson has logged more than 1.8 years of her 57 years of life in space.
Returning to Earth with Whitson aboard the Soyuz MS-04 spacecraft over the weekend were Russian cosmonaut Fyodor Yurchikhin and U.S. astronaut Jack Fischer. They did so shortly after Yurchikhin relinquished command of Expedition 52 and handed the reins over to recently-arrived U.S. astronaut Randy “Komrade” Bresnik, who will now helm Expedition 53 until mid-December. “That’s all folks!” Fischer tweeted his 107,000 followers on Friday. “Expedition 52 came to a close today as @AstroKomrade took over.” Fischer’s words hinted at the bittersweet nature of leaving space and coming home; words that were echoed by Whitson herself in one of her last space-to-ground communications.
A planned news conference last Wednesday was canceled, due to the ravages imposed upon Houston, Texas, by Hurricane Harvey, but Whitson did respond to a series of questions from Marcia Dunn of the Associated Press. “Actually, most of the flight has gone by very quickly,” she said. “In fact, I would say that it didn’t feel any longer than my previous two flights of six months in duration. I would say the slowest time has been the last week or so. I think it has to do with switching in your mind where you want/need to be. Once the switch is thrown to go home, time seems to move a lot slower.”
Whitson launched to the ISS last November, aboard Soyuz MS-03, shoulder-to-shoulder with Russian cosmonaut Oleg Novitsky and Frenchman Thomas Pesquet. Upon arrival at the station, they folded into the incumbent Expedition 50 crew of Commander Shane Kimbrough of NASA and his Russian crewmates, Sergei Ryzhikov and Andrei Borisenko. With the return of Kimbrough’s crew to Earth on 10 April 2017, it was anticipated that Whitson would command Expedition 51—and become the first women to lead two station crews—until her own return home in early June.
All that changed in the weeks after her arrival aboard the ISS. Late last summer, Russia decided to reduce its number of cosmonauts through 2017 and 2018 from three to two, which opened up the possibility of having an additional U.S. astronaut to maintain increments at six-person strength. In April 2017, NASA announced that Whitson would remain aboard the station until early September, joining Yurchikhin and Fischer to ensure a crew strength of at least three permanent residents. That same month, on 24 April, Whitson eclipsed fellow U.S. astronaut Jeff Williams to become the most experienced American spacefarer, with over 534 days in space. By extending her stay until September, and lengthening her mission from 197 days to 289 days, Whitson neatly surpassed Italian astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti’s 199-day record for the longest single spaceflight by a woman.
A raft of other accomplishments have characterized Whitson’s 9.5 months in orbit. On 6 January, she became the world’s oldest female spacewalker—seizing this record from fellow U.S. astronaut Linda Godwin—at the age of 56. She later pushed this record still further by performing three more sessions of Extravehicular Activity (EVA). The first, on 30 March, saw her surpass NASA’s Sunita Williams’ accomplishment of 50 hours and 44 minutes to become the most experienced female spacewalker. The second and third, performed in May, saw Whitson advance this record yet further. She ends her mission with a career total of ten spacewalks and more than 60 hours spent outside a spacecraft. This also positions her as the third most experienced spacewalker in history and one of only five humans to have performed ten or more EVAs. By a quirk of fate, Whitson performed both the 100th spacewalk for ISS construction and maintenance, and the 200th, almost exactly a decade apart.
It remains to be seen whether a future mission awaits Whitson. “I am not sure what the future holds for me personally, but I envision myself continuing to work on spaceflight programs,” she told Marcia Dunn of the Associated Press. “My desire to contribute to the spaceflight team as we move forward in our exploration of space has only increased over the years.” Whitson now sits in eighth place on the list of the most experienced space travelers of all time. Two of the men above her on the list—veteran Russian cosmonauts Yuri Malenchenko and Fyodor Yurchikhin—have been Whitson’s crewmates. In fact, Yurchikhin has flown with Whitson during all three of her own missions.
As she becomes one of only four women in history, alongside Pam Melroy, Sandy Magnus and Stephanie Wilson, to have chalked up three visits to a space station, Whitson will miss many things as she settles back into life on Earth. “I will miss the enchantingly peaceful limb of our Earth from this vantage point,” she told Marcia Dunn. “Until the end of my days, my eyes will search the horizon to see that curve.”