Editor's note: This column by Erin Grace was originally published in The World-Herald on Dec. 7, 2017.
Like practically everyone else on Earth on a July night in 1969, Peggy Whitson was glued to her TV set, watching a miracle of science and man happen right before her eyes.
Like practically everyone else, she, too heard the famous words — “That’s one small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind” — and felt the beginning of a dream for her own life.
Unlike practically everyone else, this 9-year-old Iowa farm girl went on to follow the path blazed by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin that day. She became an astronaut, too.
And not just any astronaut, if that can even be said of that esteemed class. (Out of a recent pool of 18,000, 12 were selected.)
Once she made it, Peggy, now 57, really made it and broke all kinds of records. She has commanded the International Space Station twice, the only female astronaut to do it more than once. She is the only woman to have gone on 10 space walks. She has spent more time in space — a cumulative 665 days — than any other American, woman or man.
Her last day was Sept. 3, Kazakhstan time — or Sept. 2 on her family’s farm in south-central Iowa.
On Friday, she will return to her home state as guest of honor at the Celebrate Iowa Gala in Des Moines. The event raises funds for the State Historical Museum of Iowa, where a flight suit Peggy wore in space in 2002 is currently on display.
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It’s not as if astronauts are a regular Iowa crop. Peggy is one of seven Iowa-born astronauts in a club of 350, of whom 56 are active. Nebraska has had one astronaut, the Omaha-born Clayton Anderson, whose hometown is Ashland. He served with Peggy during a 2007-08 mission.
Did Clayton brag about past football glory? Did Peggy rub his nose in the State Fair and Butter Cow?
Peggy didn’t peep about what happened 250 miles above Earth but said, “There was definitely an Iowa-Nebraska rivalry going on for sure. We had a lot of fun.”
Peggy’s journey from Mount Ayr, where she was born, to outer space involved a lot of education, including something formative she learned on her family farm near Beaconsfield: that you used what you had and you made things work. Her father’s philosophy was that just about anything could be fixed with a pair of pliers and No. 2 baling wire.
As influential as that 1969 Apollo moon landing was, more important to Peggy’s career choice was NASA’s first class of female astronauts. They started in 1978, the year Peggy graduated from a class of about 68 at Mount Ayr Community High. By then, Peggy, who had saved up farm chore “chicken money,” had earned her pilot’s license and was flying little planes. Seeing the new female astronauts made becoming one “seem achievable.”
In 1981, Peggy graduated from Iowa Wesleyan College with a degree in biology and chemistry. In 1983, Sally K. Ride became the first American woman in space (the first woman in space was a Russian 20 years prior). In 1985, Peggy got her doctorate in biochemistry from Rice University in Houston.
In 1986, the Challenger blew up. Did the explosion dissuade her?
“If anything, maybe it made it more important,” she said.
It took Peggy, a biochemist, 10 years of trying to finally be accepted into the astronaut program.
“The odds were never in my favor, but I just kept trying and kept trying and kept trying,” she said in an interview this week.
The challenges of space missions are so big that they can be difficult to fully appreciate. Inside the space station there is zero gravity, and as fun as that can be — and it’s fun, Peggy says — you have to learn how to do everything differently. Outside the space station, the pressurized suits can make you feel weighted down. It’s hard to move.
One of the most challenging events during Peggy’s time in space was when the shuttle was docked to the International Space Station and the crew was deploying the second of two 239-foot solar array wings. The first one deployed with no problem. The second one tore. The ground team had to come up with a solution and astronauts had to implement it so the shuttle could undock and leave the station.
“Pretty stressful,” she said. “We did what I consider some of the sportiest robotic activity.”
She and another astronaut made the fix, using wire, that old farm staple.
“It was not No. 2 wire, but it was still wire,” she said. “You can solve problems but the solutions don’t always have to be elaborate or expensive. They (just have to) get the job done.”
She said that was an example of what NASA does best: Take a hard thing and make it look easy.
Will Peggy make a fourth journey into space? At her age and given the lag years between her 2002, 2007 and 2016 missions, another journey is not very likely, she said, though she’d jump at another chance to go. During her most recent mission, which began in November 2016, she was asked to stay an extra three months and she gladly said yes.
Space is fun. She loves zero gravity. She’s a gamer about doing interstellar interviews and tweeting to promote science and space exploration.
A Fourth of July snapshot from the space station shows Peggy and fellow astronaut Jack Fischer posing in loud stars-and-stripes pants. “Fashion police,” she tweeted, “you have to grade us on a curve — we just love our country... a LOT!! Happy Birthday U.S.A.!”
What did Peggy crave most to eat and what was her first meal upon landing in Kazakhstan? Pizza. Ordered from an Italian place in Germany.
What’s the coolest thing about space? Spacewalking.
What’s her favorite space movie? “Aliens.”
Does she speak Russian? Affirmative. On one of her expeditions, she was co-pilot in the Soyuz. All the procedures, ground communication and displays in the capsule were in Russian. It was “a big challenge,” she said, but she handled it.
How’s the view from 1 million feet? Stunning and a reminder about what we share in common: our planet.
“One thing that flying in space does for you is it gives you a change in perspective,” she said. “We all have to live in the same place.”
Chatting with Peggy Whitson was a reminder to look up. To wonder. To dare. To try and try and try.
Practically everyone can do that.
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Water covers a road near Valley, Nebraska, on Friday, March 15, 2019.
Heavy machinery stacks up concrete chunks on the shore of the Elkhorn River at the Q Street bridge as part of an effort to stabilize the bank on the recently flooded river.
Sarpy County Sheriff's Deputy Darin Morrissey rides an ATV through floodwaters in Hawaiian Village.
Omaha Roncalli's Shane Orr celebrates their double overtime win over Aurora during a semifinal game in the Class B Nebraska state basketball tournament at Pinnacle Bank Arena.
The Auburn bench and crowd react to Auburn's Cameron Binder hitting what would be the game winning shot against North Bend Central during the championship game in the Class C1 Nebraska state basketball tournament at Pinnacle Bank Arena.
Creighton's Jordan Hovey (5), right, celebrates hitting a home run with his teammates in the 2nd inning.
Nebraskaâ€™s Adrian Martinez runs out of the end zone after a play during spring football practice at the Hawks Championship Center in Lincoln, Nebraska.
Treyton Gubser, left, and his uncle Daniel Gubser paddle using shovels through the floodwaters after they rescued Daniel's kid's cat, Bob, in Hamburg, Iowa.
Highway 81 is covered in floodwaters south of Columbus, Nebraska.
A Nebraska National Guard helicopter flies over a flooded Waterloo, Nebraska, in March.
Cars drive drive across a flooded Platte River on Highway 50 just north of Louisville, Nebraska.
A Canada goose flies over Matthew J. Placzek's "Monument to Labor" sculpture as floodwaters from the Missouri River begin to recede on the Omaha riverfront.
Floodwaters closed Ave I at North 26th Street in Council Bluffs, Iowa.
A truck drives through a flooded road near the Platte River in April.
Lincoln Pius X's Austin Jablonski holds up the net after his team defeated Omaha Roncalli in the championship game in the Class B Nebraska state basketball tournament at Pinnacle Bank Arena.
Amelia Fritz, right, holds on to her daughter-in-law Tesha Fritz in Glenwood, Iowa. They were evacuated from Pacific Junction, Iowa, after floodwaters hit the town last night. They were part of 15-relatives all staying in the same house or in a camper in the front driveway.
Robert Jones looks around his flood damaged house north of Highway 50, near Louisville,Nebraska. The floor, which is normally a white tile, is covered in mud.
Aurora's Nicholas Hutsell, left, fouls Omaha Roncalli's Alexander Rodgers during a semifinal game in the Class B Nebraska state basketball tournament at Pinnacle Bank Arena.
Lincoln Pius X's Charlie Easley, left, and and Omaha Roncalli's Alexander Rodgers stretch for a loose ball during the championship game in the Class B Nebraska state basketball tournament at Pinnacle Bank Arena.
Humphrey/Lindsay Holy Family's Trent Reardon, left and Jason Sjuts celebrate their victory over Fremont Bergan during the championship game in the Class D1 Nebraska state basketball tournament at Pinnacle Bank Arena.
Aurora's Kaleb Moural wipes the sweat from his face during the second half against Omaha Roncalli during a semifinal game in the Class B Nebraska state basketball tournament at Pinnacle Bank Arena.
Bob the cat looks on from a basket in a boat after being rescued from floodwaters in Hamburg, Iowa.
A vehicle is stuck in floodwaters near 1st Street and Pierce Street in Fremont, Nebraska.
Tim Rockford, left, and David Bauer, tour the Bellwood Lakes neighborhood which was destroyed by the flooding days prior along the Platte River in Bellwood, Nebraska.
Lincoln East's Charlotte Bovaird practices her shot and she and her teammates warm up in the hallways before the start of the game. Lincoln East played Millard South in a Class A first-round basketball game during the girls state basketball tournament at the Pinnacle Bank Arena in Lincoln, Nebraska.
Elkhorn South's Ryee Gray (40) fights for a rebound with Sidney's Meaghan Ross (0).Sidney played Elkhorn South in a Class B first-round basketball game during the girls state basketball tournament at the Pinnacle Bank Arena in Lincoln, Nebraska. Elkhorn South defeated Sidney 51-37.
Westside poses with the championship plaque with the winning score on the wall behind them after Omaha Westside defeated Millard North 54-53 at Omaha Westside in Omaha, Nebraska.
Chris Saenz of Bellevue works out at FIT IN THE CITY in Papillion, Nebraska.
Dymond Meeks leaps across the snow pile in the center of Farnam Street near its intersection with 14th Street in Omaha, Nebraska, as she makes her way to work. Meeks said the snow was terrible. She said it took her 15 minutes to get down the hill her home is located on.
Hazley Eulberg, 10, of Kennard, Nebraska, takes in the trophy display in the Whitetail Kings Collection booth at the Omaha International Boat Sports and Travel Show at the CHI Health Center in Omaha, Nebraska.
The house-made carrot cake is one of the many desserts on the menu at J. Gilbertâ€™s Wood-Fired Steaks & Seafood in Omahaâ€™s Capitol District.
UNO's Mitch Hahn (44), right, grabs a rebound over the top of teammate JT Gibson (0). UNO played South Dakota State in a men's basketball game at Baxter Arena in Omaha, Nebraska.
Norfolk's Annika Harthoorn dives backwards at the start of heat 4 of the girls 100 yard backstroke at the Bob Devaney Sports Center on Friday, Feb. 22, 2019, in Lincoln, Nebraska, during the state swimming prelims.
UNO's Mitch Hahn (44) hugs his mom Kim Hahn following UNO's 85-84 win over South Dakota State. UNO played South Dakota State in a men's basketball game at Baxter Arena in Omaha, Nebraska.
Lincoln Pius X's Katie Stonehocker competes in the girls 200 yard freestyle at the Bob Devaney Sports Center on Friday, Feb. 22, 2019, in Lincoln, Nebraska, during the state swimming prelims.
Jen Freeman, who is training for a 100 mile race, jogs through the snow in Millard, Nebraska. Freeman said that she has to train no matter what the weather.
Mesquite grilled eight-ounce filet with heirloom carrots and burnt end mac and cheese. J. Gilbertâ€™s Wood-Fired Steaks & Seafood serves dinner seven nights a week in Omahaâ€™s Capitol District.
UNO's Matt Pile (40) gets tangled with Western Illinois' Zion Young (1), left and Brandon Gilbeck (52) in the first half as the University of Nebraska at Omaha hosts Western Illinois at the Baxter Arena in Omaha, Nebraska.
Omaha Burke assistant wrestling coach Jesse Peters takes a rest before the start of the semifinals at the CHI Health Center in Omaha, Nebraska, during the Nebraska State Wrestling Tournament. Peters said the nap helps him get through the long tournament days.
South Dakota State's Mike Daum (24) scores a basket against UNO. UNO played South Dakota State in a men's basketball game at Baxter Arena in Omaha, Nebraska.
UNO's Ayo Akinwole (10) drives past Western Illinois' Keshon Montague (22) in the first half as the University of Nebraska at Omaha hosts Western Illinois at the Baxter Arena in Omaha, Nebraska.
Creamed corn with bacon is among many side items on the menu at J. Gilbertâ€™s Wood-Fired Steaks & Seafood in Omahaâ€™s Capitol District.
The UNO basketball team celebrates their 85-84 win over South Dakota State. UNO played South Dakota State in a men's basketball game at Baxter Arena in Omaha, Nebraska.
UNO's KJ Robinson (5) reacts after missing a shot. UNO played South Dakota State in a men's basketball game at Baxter Arena in Omaha, Nebraska.
Omaha Bryan's Ladamien Sturdivant, left, tries to keep a hold on Fremont's Cody Carlson during their Class A 126 pound semifinals wrestling match at the CHI Health Center in Omaha, Nebraska, during the Nebraska State Wrestling Tournament.
Lincoln Pius X's Kara Owens rises from the water as she competes in heat 2 of the girls 100 yard backstroke at the Bob Devaney Sports Center on Friday, Feb. 22, 2019, in Lincoln, Nebraska, during the state swimming prelims.
Hilary Sehring punches the speed bag during an exercise round at 9Round Fitness in Omaha, Nebraska.
Gothenburg's wrestling coach Tom Scott cheers on Gothenburg's Wyatt Hotz as he takes on Lexington's Brady Fago during their 132 pound semifinals wrestling match at the CHI Health Center in Omaha, Nebraska, during the Nebraska State Wrestling Tournament.
Seventh-grade students from Nathan Hale Middle School are reflected in a â€œThe New Negro Escapist Social and Athletic Club,â€ a portrait by Rashid Johnson while touring 30 Americans, an exhibition from the Rubell Family Collection at the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha, Nebraska. The traveling exhibit of 30 African American artists includes art with themes of slavery, the KKK and an emphasis on the beauty of black lives.
A man clears the snow from the top of a parking garage located near 10th and Jackson Streets in Omaha, Nebraska, after heavy snowfall.
UNO's Zach Jackson (21) delivers a slam dunk as teammate Ayo Akinwole (10) expresses his approval in the second half as the University of Nebraska at Omaha beats Western Illinois 77-63 at the Baxter Arena in Omaha, Nebraska.
Fremont assistant coach Cydney Granger cheers on Fremont swimmer Lauren Gifford in the girls 500 yard freestyle at the Bob Devaney Sports Center on Friday, Feb. 22, 2019, in Lincoln, Nebraska, during the state swimming prelims.
A pedestrian cruises past a sign of seasons to come in the window of Palm Beach Tan, 5417 S. 96th Street in Omaha, Nebraska.
UNO's Ayo Akinwole (10), left, drives around South Dakota State's David Jenkins (5). UNO played South Dakota State in a men's basketball game at Baxter Arena in Omaha, Nebraska.
Jim Stotts, of Glenwood, Iowa, walks a few laps around Stinson Park while passing time before going to see a movie at Aksarben Cinema, in Omaha, Nebraska.
Chris Kotulak, who is the Chief Operating Officer at Fonner Park, demonstrates how to play a PariMAX's historical horse racing game at the Fonner Park executive offices in Grand Island, Nebraska.
Western Michigan's Ethen Frank (26), Lawton Courtnall (10), and Hugh McGing (16) celebrate a goal during the second period of a college hockey game at Baxter Arena in Omaha, Nebraska.
People jog through the snow at Lake Zorinsky in Omaha, Nebraska.
Gage Beins, right, dumps snow on his friend Jeremy Boyd as they goof around in the snow at Lake Zorinsky in Omaha, Nebraska.
Jamie Kotera, 59, of Springfield, Nebraska, who works out five times a week is seen during her strength training workout with personal trainer Tyler Kottas at Better Bodies Fitness in Omaha, Nebraska.