Peggy Whitson was the first astronaut I got to meet and talk with at length, ten years ago at a party at Moody Gardens celebrating NASA’s 50th anniversary. She was cool and canny, radiating competence and cutting a different figure than her male astronaut counterparts, rocking a gown and heels as she worked the crowds.
If I’d known I was meeting a legend, I would have paid even closer attention. Whitson is one of the most accomplished astronauts in the corps, holding a large number of NASA records including the most spacewalks by a NASA astronaut (ten, tied with Michael López-Alegría) and more time in space than any other American, surpassing even Scott Kelly.
And as it turns out, Whitson is about as skilled an astronaut as they come. I’ve had the opportunity to talk with a lot of space flight insiders over the past few years, and when conversations turn to the modern-day astronaut corps and the ISS, Whitson’s name invariably comes up—and never negatively. She’s often described as not just a model astronaut, but as a space superhero—a stunningly talented professional in orbit who powers through tasks and assignments with zero mistakes, devouring work and clearing schedules with effortless ease. She is almost universally regarded as the solution to any problem on the ISS—if something’s not working, inside or outside of the station, you can probably throw Whitson at it and it’ll be back on the nominal in no time.
A few weeks ago Whitson stopped by the Ars studio, and we had the opportunity to lob some questions at her about how tiring it must be to kick so much ass all the time. She told us about her preferred direction for NASA’s human space flight program (Moon first, then Mars), her favorite thing about living in space (EVAs!), and some other highlights of her hundreds of days orbiting the Earth.
She also echoed something I originally heard from none other than Apollo 12 Lunar Module Pilot and moonwalker Al Bean: NASA’s inability to advertise (specifically, the prohibition on using federal dollars from NASA’s budget to produce advertisements advocating for the allocation of more federal dollars to NASA’s budget) means that the agency often finds itself forgotten by the public when there’s no crisis or other huge milestone to draw media attention. It’s a difficult problem without a clear solution—it’s hard to gain mind share if you’re not advertising, and it’s hard to get the public clamoring for more awesome space adventures without mind share.
We’re thankful that Whitson was able give us a few minutes of her time. She’s a rock star, and any day you get to interview a rock star is a good day—especially if it’s a rock star who wears an extravehicular mobility unit to work.