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She holds the NASA record for time spent in space. This week she headed back

Astronaut Peggy Whitson, probably thinking about breaking records or being in space.
Bill Ingalls/NASA
NASA via Getty Images
Astronaut Peggy Whitson, probably thinking about breaking records or being in space.

Before this week, Peggy Whitson had spent a cumulative 665 days in space over her career, giving her the NASA record. She's not done yet.

Who is she? Whitson, 63, is a biochemistry researcher, retired NASA astronaut, and colloquially known as "the space ninja."

  • Whitson was the first female commander of the International Space Station, and has spent more time spacewalking than any other woman.
  • Among her accolades on her NASA profile, Whitson also places eighth on the all-time space endurance list.
  • What's the big deal? Though her NASA days are over, Whitson recently went back to space on a chartered flight as commander. It included Saudi Arabia's first astronauts in decades.

  • The flight, organized by Axiom Space and powered by a SpaceX rocket and capsule, was headed for the International Space Station, and included Rayyanah Barnawi, a stem cell researcher who became the first Saudi woman to go to space, according to the Associated Press.
  • The crew launched this past Sunday, and will spend more than a week at the station before returning with a splashdown off the Florida coast.
  • The ticketed trip, which is estimated to have cost somewhere around $55 million per person, is just one of the forays into space tourism that seem to be the future trend for the super wealthy.

  • Want to learn about another inspiring person? Listen to Consider This on Michael J. Fox and his battle against Parkinson's.

    What are people saying?

    "It was a phenomenal ride," is what Whitson had to say after reaching orbit, according to the AP.

    Here are some thoughts she shared in conversation with NPR a few years ago:

    On gravity:

    Gravity always sucks. It really, really does...

    It's a big challenge just re-adapting to feeling heavy again, you know? Even my arm feels heavy. My legs feel heavy.

    On readjusting once you're back from space:

    I find it very difficult. I always call it the post-flight funk, where I'm just not sure what the objective is now anymore. It's funny, because when you have that daily routine of, "Here's how much I want to try and get done today," it gives you — gives me anyway — a lot of motivation and a lot of direction. And the initial return process feels a little directionless.

    And just for fun, here's William Shatner's haunting account of space travel after leaving the planet for a bit with Jeff Bezos's company Blue Origin:

    It was the death that I saw in space and the life force that I saw coming from the planet — the blue, the beige and the white, and I realized one was death and the other was life.

    What now?

  • NASA has said it wants to open space to more people and supports private missions, saying it is "seeking proposals for two new private astronaut missions to the International Space Station."
  • Learn more:

  • This star ate its own planet. Earth may share the same fate
  • NASA is keeping Voyager 2 going until at least 2026 by tapping into backup power
  • Why SpaceX staff cheered when the Starship rocket exploded
  • Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

    Manuela López Restrepo
    Manuela López Restrepo is a producer and writer at All Things Considered. She's been at NPR since graduating from The University of Maryland, and has worked at shows like Morning Edition and It's Been A Minute. She lives in Brooklyn with her cat Martin.