Astronaut Peggy Whitson visits Science Center of Iowa


Photo: Alyssa Miller/Iowa State Daily

Peggy Whitson speaks at the Science Center of Iowa in Des Moines on Oct. 11. 

Alyssa Miller

After traveling outer space and back, Peggy Whitson, world-renowned astronaut and native to Iowa, will be traveling to Des Moines as part of the Science Center of Iowa’s Scientist in Residence program.

Whitson will be in the area until Saturday, Oct. 13.

Kim Blythe, promotions and events coordinator for the Science Center of Iowa, has been working for months to get Whitson to speak at the Science Center.

“We thought it would be perfect to bring Peggy to the Science Center,” Blythe said. “She’s such a role model to not only young people in Iowa but to young women that are interested in careers in science, technology, engineering and math.”

Whitson has spent more time in space than any other woman, logging more than 376 days. She is also the first woman to have commanded the International Space Station.

“I just feel really lucky to have been in the right place at the right time to have gotten those opportunities,” Whitson said. “I think the important thing about records is that you need to keep breaking them and that we need to keep extending and going just a little bit further. … The records are only important as a marker for the next milestone that we’re going to achieve more.”

Having had many authoritative titles and positions throughout her NASA career, Whitson has learned much about what it takes to be a leader.

“I think it’s really important to manage communication and expectations with folks,” Whitson said. “As much as I know it’s important, I don’t always think I do the best job, so I think it’s one of those things that I always try to strive to do even better.”

Whitson discussed how she began down the path of becoming an astronaut.

“When I was 9, I watched Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walk on the moon,” Whitson said. “It wasn’t really until I graduated from high school — that was the year they selected the very first female astronauts — that’s when it became my goal to try to become an astronaut.”

Although she had an interest in becoming an astronaut, Whitson attributes her perseverance as the key to her success.

“In some senses, I was lucky enough in that I didn’t know how hard and competitive it was to become an astronaut,” Whitson said. “My hard-headed determination made sure I kept with it and stuck with it all those years before I was lucky enough to be selected.”

Whitson was born in Mount Ayr, Iowa, and grew up outside of Beaconsfield. She earned a Bachelor of Science degree in biology and chemistry at Iowa Wesleyan College and earned a doctorate degree in biochemistry at Rice University.

“I always enjoy coming back home,” Whitson said. “My story has a lot more meaning to young people who have grown up in Iowa. I enjoy speaking to them, telling them how important it is to reach for whatever your dreams are and to pursue them.”

On Thursday evening, Oct. 11, Whitson gave a presentation to a group of astronomy enthusiasts explaining primarily the research conducted at the International Space Station, which ranges from how growing plants behave to observing crystals grow while in a low gravity environment.

“It’s more of an educational tool having [Whitson] here,” Blythe said. “She does have a name. We have a flag that she took up to the International Space Station in one of our platforms. … People have visited the science center; they’ve seen her flag; they’ve seen the pictures we have; now they can actually meet her in person.”

Whitson encourages young people to strive toward their goals, but to also make sure they enjoy themselves along the way.

“The really important thing I try to tell young people is no matter what your goal is, if you’re working really hard to get to that goal and you’re having fun, you’re going the right direction,” Whitson said. “You need to have fun along the way.”