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.
Sign up for The World-Herald's afternoon updates
Receive a summary of the day’s popular and trending stories from Omaha.com.
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.
1 of 107
The moon rose over the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge in the early morning hours.
On the 75th anniversary of D-Day, Ed Morrissette a 95-year-old WWII veteran of Papillion, reminisced while toasting to his fallen comrades with a drink accompanied by John Adams, Tom Demro, Antonio Chickinelli and Jeff Hadden at Patriarch Distillers Inc. in La Vista, Nebraska, Thursday, June 6, 2019. Morrissette who was part of the second wave on D-Day at Omaha Beach drank a Canada Dry while the others had Soldier Valley Omaha Beach D-Day 75th anniversary bourbon whiskey.
Major League Baseball debuted in Omaha on Thursday June 13th as the Royals faced the Tigers at TD Ameritrade Park.
Detroit Tigers' Miguel Cabrera signed autographs for fans prior to a Major League Baseball game against the Kansas City Royals at TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha, Nebraska, on Thursday, June 13, 2019.
Omaha Burke's Jaylon Roussell jogged the field people to participating in the Nebraska Cornhuskers Friday Night Lights event at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln, Nebraska.
Louisville's Adam Elliott warmed up before the start of game 7 of the College World Series.
Louisville's Drew Campbell celebrated a walk-off win on his hit in the bottom of the 9th against Mississippi State during game ten of the College World Series at TD Ameritrade Park.
Te'Andi Titus, left, and Kevin Kalaw, both of Omaha, read on the dock at Standing Bear Lake as a cool breeze swept over the lake, keeping the mosquitoes at bay.
Vanderbilt and Michigan faced off in the College World Series finals at TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha, Nebraska in 2019.
Michigan's Jordan Brewer and Jack Blomgren celebrated after defeating Vanderbilt in their College World Series game.
A B-2 stealth bomber flew over as Michigan stands during the National Anthem before their College World Series game.
Vanderbilt faces Michigan during their College World Series game.
Vanderbilt's Harrison Ray signed autographs before the start of game 3 of the CWS championship.
Vanderbilt fans celebrate at the Commodores capture a national title with a win over Michigan.
Michigan players mingled prior to their College World Series game against Vanderbilt.
Vanderbilt celebrated their win over Michigan during the third game of the champion series of the College World Series.
Chris Isaak performed at the free Memorial Park Concert at Memorial Park.
Omaha firefighter David Kirchofer provided water to Louie the dog, after Kirchofer helped battle a a fire at 5427 86th Court. Louie, who does not live in the unit that caught fire, was interested in all the action.
Ray Renk of San Francisco, California, holds his daughter Kennedy, 8, alongside his son Benjamin, 10, while sporting personalized suits and watching Warren Buffett, the CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, walk the convention floor during the Berkshire Hathaway Annual Shareholders Meeting at the CHI Health Center Omaha in Omaha, Nebraska, Saturday, May 4, 2019.
Phoebe the giraffe eats lettuce fed by visitors as the Lincoln Children's Zoo provides a sneak peek at their new exhibits and expansion in Lincoln, Nebraska, Thursday, May 9, 2019.
Lincoln Southeast’s Katie Whitehead, center, and Caroline Miller, right, celebrate with teammates including Ally Keitges, left, after winning the No. 1 doubles against Millard North during the NSAA Class A girls state tennis championship match at Koch Family Tennis Center in Omaha, Nebraska, Friday, May 17, 2019.
Omaha Bryanâ€™s Darwin Loftin lands a long jump during the Metro Conference track meet at Omaha Burke.
Millard West's Corbin Hawkins waits out the rain delay in the dugout. The baseball game between Millard West and Creighton Prep was postponed because of the weather.
Archbishop Bergan's Luke Jessen hits the center field wall trying to catch a hit from Millard West's Max Anderson resulting in an in-field home run during their state tournament game.
Crawford's Jillian Brennan (13) points up to the sky before the Class D 3,200-meter final at Omaha Burke High School during day one of the state track meet.
Gretna's Ashley Marsh connects with the ball alongside Marian's Maureen Tolley during the semifinal round of the Class A girls state soccer tournament at Morrison Stadium in Omaha, Nebraska, Saturday, May 11, 2019.
Elkhorn South players celebrate their championship while reading the name plate on the trophy after defeating Skutt during the NSAA Class B girls state soccer championship game Morrison Stadium in Omaha, Nebraska, Tuesday, May 14, 2019.
Jacob Himelick, left, a Millard north senior, chats with fellow senior Jace January as he signs January's year book. January likes to spend the time between classes greeting fellow students in the hallway.
Hannah Gruhlkey hugs her goat Griffin as he nibbles on her hair during a Country Bumpkin 4-H Club meeting at the Living Legend Farm.
Chipper Fyfe stands on a dike to see how far floodwaters have risen just west of Hamburg, Iowa.
Nebraska pitchers stay loose before their NCAA Regional game in Oklahoma City.
Tad Badje, 49, right, and wife Shelly Badje, 48, pepper Title Boxing Club's general manager, Chris Gerhardt's mid-section during a two-on-one body shot race as part of their work out at Title Boxing Club in Omaha, Nebraska.
Two-year-old Hannah Bonnot of Denver, Colorado, stands in awe before "Mountain Outlaw" taken at Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming, on display at Tom Mangelsen's "Life in the Wild" exhibition at the Durham Museum in Omaha, Nebraska.
A deer walks through the tall grass at Chalco Hills Recreation Area in Omaha, Nebraska.
Canada geese fly over Flanagan Lake at sunset in Omaha, Nebraska.
The sunset is reflected in some open water at Flanagan Lake in Omaha, Nebraska.
Ian Murphy, canvases the nearly 90 snow people which are on display at the Leavenworth Park in Omaha, Nebraska. Neighbors such as Murphy say the snow people didn't exist yesterday and claim it happened over night or possibly early this morning.
Husker fans rock The Rock and corn hats in the first half as the University of Nebraska-Lincoln men's basketball team hosts Michigan State at the Pinnacle Bank Arena in Lincoln, Nebraska.
An allosaurus appears to be eyeing a tasty, 19-month-old morsel named Austin Haseltine as he is lifted from the shoulders of his grandpa, Greg Fasano, by his mother, Amy Haseltine, with his father, Jim Haseltine looking on. The Dinosaur UpROAR exhibit at Lauritzen Gardens, 100 Bancroft Street in Omaha, Nebraska, features 20 life-sized installations as well as discovery stations and educational activities set throughout the gardens.
The setting moon is framed by some dried flowers at Lake Zorinsky in Omaha, Nebraska.
A person goes for a run along the snow covered trails at Lake Zorinsky in Omaha, Nebraska.
The sun rises on a snow covered Lake Zorinsky in Omaha, Nebraska.
Pink and blue balloons float past the Sower statue on the Nebraska State Capitol after balloons were released for the 45th annual Nebraska Walk for Life in Lincoln, Nebraska.
Steam rises over north downtown Omaha, Nebraska, as morning lows were below -10 degrees.
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.
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.
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.