A week since their return from low-Earth orbit, Expedition 52 astronauts Peggy Whitson and Jack Fischer gathered before a crowd of journalists at the Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, Texas, earlier today (Monday), to discuss their months of research, spacewalking and record-breaking activity aboard the International Space Station (ISS). Fischer wrapped up a 136-day stay on the multi-national laboratory, and chalked up two sessions of Extravehicular Activity (EVA), whilst Whitson now stands as the most seasoned U.S. astronaut, the most experienced female spacefarer and holds records for the longest single mission by a woman and the greatest number of spacewalks and spacewalking hours by a woman.
In spite of the recent ravages of Hurricane Harvey, the #HoustonStrong hashtag has never carried more truth, as Whitson and Fischer outlined their own triumphs over adversity over several months in space. Launched last 17 November, Whitson was originally slated to return to Earth in early June, alongside her Soyuz MS-03 crewmates Oleg Novitsky and Thomas Pesquet. The trio formed the second half of Expedition 50, before Whitson rotated into the command of Expedition 51, becoming the first woman in history to lead as many as two space station expeditions. Her own increment was extended until September, ensuring that a barebones crew of three would remain aboard the ISS. Following the departure of Novitsky and Pesquet in early June, she joined Expedition 52 with Fyodor Yurchikhin and Jack Fischer. This duo launched from Baikonur on 20 April. Their crew was then expanded up to six in late July, with the arrival of Sergei Ryazansky, Paolo Nespoli and Randy Bresnik.
“What impressed me most was the quality and caliber of science that we’re doing now,” Whitson told the JSC audience. Her career, both before and since becoming an astronaut, has seen her work on space medicine issues for the shuttle-Mir program in the 1990s and she has flown aboard the ISS at three critical junctures of its history. Her first flight on Expedition 5 in June-December 2002 saw her honored as the first ISS “science officer”, whilst on Expedition 16 in October 2007 through April 2008 she became the first female astronaut to command a space station. With Expeditions 50, 51 and 52, she has seen the ISS come full-circle, from an in-work construction effort in 2002, to the arrival of new international modules and an enhanced science capability in 2007-2008 and to the station in its final form in 2016-2017. Fischer has long nicknamed her the “Space Ninja”.
Ever jocular, Fischer comes from a quite different background to Whitson; her biomedical credentials are matched by his Air Force and engineering experience. Aside from expressing his relief to be home and to see his wife again, he was impressed by the average 60 hours per week of science that the crew was able to perform. This, Fischer noted, was significantly higher than even five years ago and was enabled principally through ground commanding of many critical activities, including unpiloted SpaceX Dragon and Orbital ATK Cygnus cargo ships. The berthing and latching of these ships was controlled by robotics officers on the ground, thereby allowing the astronauts to complete their part of the task, before heading back to work on their respective science activities.
Although Fischer has wrapped up the first flight of his astronaut career, it seems unlikely that 57-year-old Whitson will fly again, although only time can tell. Asked if she missed the station, her response was obviously in the affirmative, but she noted emphatically—and with a twinkle in her eye—that she missed “flush toilets” on Earth. For Fischer, the prospect of returning home after his own 4.5 months in space was akin to returning home after a deployment, during his Air Force career. “Once you shift gears and think about coming home,” he reflected, “it’s a different mental state.”
But perhaps the most poignant part of today’s reflection were Fischer’s recollections from his own father, who long ago dared his son to dream. “And no one is going to hand it to you,” Fischer said. “You don’t deserve anything! If you don’t take what you are given, and make something of it, and work really hard at it, you’re not gonna accomplish anything.”