What would you ask an astronaut?

What would you ask an astronaut?

By: Emilee Richardson, Marketing & Communications Coordinator

What would you ask an astronaut? I found myself asking that question this week as I prepared to interview Peggy Whitson, pioneering female astronaut and SCI’s second-ever Scientist in Residence.

Peggy Whitson was the first female commander of the International Space Station. She holds the records for the woman with the most time in space (377 days) and most time spacewalking (39 hours). She also was the first and only female Chief of the Astronaut Corps ("the queen bee of astronauts"). She gave up that role earlier this year so she could have the chance to fly again. Oh, and she’s an Iowan! Peggy Whitson got her start as an Iowa farmgirl, born and raised near Mt. Ayr, Iowa.

So what would you ask this amazing woman? In order to make the most of my time with her, I opened it up to the collective creativity of SCI’s Facebook and Twitter followers, the SCI staff and a handful of my nerdiest friends.

I didn’t get through all of my questions in the 15 minutes I had to sit down with her – believe me, I could have listened to her stories for days – but I hope you enjoy these insights from one of the few people who has left the planet Earth to do something most of us have only dreamed about.

Here's my interview with Peggy Whitson, astronaut:


Emilee Richardson: Let's start with the basics. What's your educational background?

Peggy Whitson: I went to Iowa Wesleyan College and got a double major in biology and chemistry and then went to graduate school and got my PhD in biochemistry. It was the right combination of challenging and interesting for me.

ER: Do you feel like that background helped you to become an astronaut?

PW: Not specifically that background – I think any background in science, technology, engineering, math can be applicable to what we do. And actually, we specifically pick a group of astronauts of diverse backgrounds so that we have different experience bases to draw from and different expertise.

I think one of the strengths of our office is that we have is we have so many different backgrounds. And that’s why when a young person asks me what they should become, I tell them, "Pick some field – science, technology, engineering, math – and pick the one you like the most and be really, really good at it. ‘Cause you’ve gotta have fun on the way too."

Some years, we need more MDs; some years, we need more pilots; some years, we need more flight test engineers; some years, we need biochemists, even!

ER: Can you explain a little bit about what you do when you’re not in space?

PW: Actually, most of our job is not in space, unfortunately. [laughs]

But we tend to support the crews that are in training to fly in space – so we do procedure validations and review training to make sure that when the crew member gets there… The crew members travel all over the world. We train in five different countries to do these spaceflights, and so there’s a lot of travel involved. And when the crew member gets there and ready to train, we want to have that training optimized, and so we have other astronauts who help prepare the training and refine it and make sure it’s going to be effective for the crew members.

We have crew members who are "capcoms" – it’s an old term for capsule communicators back from the Mercury-Apollo era – and those are the people that interface between the flight director who runs Mission Control and the crew onboard, and they’re kind of the voice of Mission Control. So we have our folks in those positions as well. We have various organizations within the Astronaut Office that are lined up with the various different programs, so we have folks who are working in the commercial crew transportation development, who are interfacing with these new commercial providers, providing their expertise and insights and you know, "hey, this works in microgravity… this doesn’t," so that they’ll have a head start on going the right direction and having the most effective, operationally-relevant vehicle when they get there. We also have the new heavy launch systems that are being developed, and we have crew members representing us there.

So we’re represented around the agency in the different various boards and various meetings in all the different programs.

ER: So there’s a lot going on on the ground! Can you talk a little about when you knew you wanted to be an astronaut and if someone inspired and helped you along the way?

PW: When I was nine years old, I watched Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walk on the moon and thought, "Wow – Cool job!" [laughs] And I think, as anyone would, many young people at the time thought "very cool job."

But it became a goal of mine when I graduated from high school, and that was the first year they picked female astronauts. I think that’s when it changed from being a dream to being a goal for me. Luckily, I had no idea how hard it would be to get in. So I just put my head down and tried to do it, and it worked out for me.

ER: That ties in perfectly to my next question that came from Facebook… As children, many of us dream of exploring space. Is it everything you imagined it to be?

PW: Ah. Interestingly, I was probably in space for like three days and every single expectation I had for being in space was exceeded – like orders of magnitude. It was just so phenomenal being there – so much better than anything I’d dreamed about or thought it might be. So it was very special to have it be so much more.

ER: Is there one thing or a couple of things that stand out to you – where you thought, "Whoa – I’m in space"?

PW: Well I think that first glimpse out the window is always pretty breathtaking.

On my first launch, the thing I’m worried most about is not screwing up. [laughs] And my first task, I was in the middeck and I had to get my helmet and gloves off give them to Valeri, float up to the flight deck and pull out the camera and the video-recording device so that we could record as we separated from the external tank to record any damage or just what the condition of the tank was.

That happens very quickly once you reach orbit, so as soon as they said we were there, I’m unstrapping, getting my gloves off and my helmet off – and of course, everything’s floating… you know, which is different – and then you float upstairs and you look out the window and you’re like, "What was I supposed to be doing?" [laughs] It was just a breathtaking view. I use the analogy that it’s like living your whole life in semi-darkness and somebody turned the light on.

ER: That’s amazing. That’s one of my bucket list goals – to see Earth from space. Speaking of dreams: Do you dream any differently in space?

PW: You know, I don’t remember my dreams, so I can’t really say that I dream differently. I still don’t remember them... on the Earth or in space. So, no.

ER: Okay, I had to ask…

You go through so much training for your journey. Is there one thing that you were not prepared for?

PW: We do a lot of training, but you really can’t train for just being in zero gravity.

We have what’s called a KC-135, so you get exposed to 30 seconds of free-fall, basically, and then you know, it’s two Gs and 30 seconds of free-fall. But with the two Gs in the middle, it’s not a very pleasant experience, which is why the KC-135 is called the "vomit comet." So you can’t really train for that. And everything involves floating and gravity, so when you’re trying to do a task, everything has to be velcroed down or in a bag or contained somehow – otherwise, it will float away!

What’s interesting, I think, is how your brain works… Whichever direction your head’s pointing is up, so when you lose track of a tool, you automatically look down. And of course, in space, you know that’s not necessarily the direction it’s going to go. So a lot of times, you can't find a tool and you’ll turn sideways – turn 90 degrees – and you’re like, "Oh, it’s right there in front of me." But somehow, your brain doesn’t quite figure it out. And even after being in space, the only thing that changes is that you know quicker to just change your orientation and you’ll find that thing. So you learn to trick your brain.

ER: You talked about this a little yesterday [at Café Sci], but for the blog, I wanted to hear again about your favorite science experiments that you’ve been a part of in space.

PW: Ah, my favorite science experiments… Well, obviously, a farmer’s daughter, I really enjoyed the soybean experiment. That was a lot of fun for me. My dad was growing soybeans on the ground, and I’d compare stories with him about my soybeans. And it was really interesting because the container was only about a foot and a half tall, and once the soybeans reached the top, they turned around and went the other direction. So just interesting observations like that were a lot of fun.

But the experiments that I enjoyed the most, I think, are the ones that were most hands-on. So I liked doing the diagnostic ultrasound. I would work with an expert on the ground, and he would tell me how to change my hand position or whatever to get the image he wanted to see so we could visualize kidneys and bladder, heart and just go through various organs and visualize them so that we could potentially use them as a diagnostic tool. So that was fun for me because it’s kind of an art to see what they’re talking about – what the ground team is looking for – and then be able to manipulate the device to show what they need to see.

One of the other experiments, which I have no real background in but I really enjoyed, was looking at this colloidal suspension of iron. So basically, it’s a liquid suspension of iron molecules. And if you put an electromagnetic field around it, it will actually form a solid. And they’re looking at that type of technology for use in suspension bridges or shock-absorbers and things like that on the ground. So they’re trying to understand a lot of the physical properties of it and the physics of how it works and what changes it. And we obviously were using gravity as our variable from what the ground team was using. My mistake one day: I set the frequency of the electromagnetic field up at 2 instead of 20 (‘cause I couldn’t see the decimal point). So on the ground – instead of a solid structure – they saw this structure that formed a wave pattern... a pulsating wave pattern that they hadn’t seen on the ground. So after we completed all of the initial investigation at the 20 Hz frequency, then we went back and repeated them at 2 to get some more information on a behavior and a characteristic that they weren’t expecting. Because they had looked at that frequency on the ground and not seen anything unusual. So they were pretty excited about it as well.

ER: Accidental science?

PW: Yeah, and actually, a lot of the times in the laboratory, the most interesting research is research where you say, "I wonder why that happened," and trying to find out the answers. That is what research is about, and you need the time to do that. And having a platform like the International Space Station that’s orbiting and can do these types of experiments is what makes it unique.

ER: We have a lot of fun here watching Don Pettit’s videos.

PW: Good! I’m glad you watch those. "Science Off the Sphere." Those have turned out really nice – I really enjoy them too.

ER: Now for a few questions focused a little more on SCI and our mission… What do you think the benefits of having traveling exhibits like Facing Mars are for young people?

PW: Well, I think it’s the exposure that’s important. How would you envision a farmgirl from Iowa becoming a commander on ISS? It was just the exposure – the impact of seeing on TV the men walking on the moon – that was a very monumental moment for me that opened up my venue of what was possible in the world.

So I think traveling exhibits take new ideas out to the community – to the young people – and give them some exposure to something that they’re not seeing on a day-to-day basis. And I think the more we can do that, the more we will help inspire our young people to do new and different things – hopefully in the STEM fields, where we really need a lot more young people getting excited.

ER: Have you seen any impact following Curiosity's latest mission to Mars?

PW: Yeah. Well, not directly, but I think that NASA’s getting a lot of really good publicity with that, which I think is important – it’s great.

I think people underestimate how difficult some of the things we do are. And the fact that, you know, only 30 percent of the vehicles have ever successfully landed on Mars... it’s really that difficult. The other 70 percent either don’t hit Mars or they hit Mars in such a way that they aren’t actually functional afterwards. So it’s really unique – it’s very special – that we’ve got a vehicle out there working, collecting data. It’s really exciting. It’s the next step. It’s where we want to go. We need to know things about Mars before we actually put our habitat there and do our research from there.

ER: And since we’re out of time, my last question: What’s your advice to young people dreaming of becoming involved in NASA’s space programs?

PW: Well obviously, I want lots of young people who are interested in these fields – in science, technology, engineering, math. We need really excited, enthusiastic people to help us do the next steps of exploration. There’s always lots and lots of challenges out there, and it’s going to take some real ingenuity and some real excitement and vigor to solve all of our problems.


The Science Center of Iowa's Scientist in Residence program brings prominent scientists to Des Moines so that children will begin to see new opportunities in STEM careers. Learn more at sciowa.org/scientistinresidence.

Category: NASA