Peggy Whitson’s name may not be one that everyone knows, but it certainly should be. This week, the record-setting astronaut announced that she is retiring from NASA after a grand total of 665 days in space.
This doesn’t come as a huge shock; there’s actually a very good, practical reason that Whitson stepped down. Anyone that is outside the protection of the Earth’s atmosphere is exposed to higher levels of radiation. There are yearly exposure limits, as well as lifetime limits, established by NASA. Whitson is so well-traveled that this has become a problem. “I have hit my radiation limit,” she told Business Insider. As a result, she can no longer fly in space through NASA.
Still, the decision has been met with sadness in the space community. Peggy Whitson has long been a personal hero of mine, and I was bereft by the news. She’s an amazing example for young women everywhere of what determination and grit can get us.
Not only was Whitson the first woman to command the International Space Station (and she’s now done it twice), but she holds the record for the most total days spent in space by any American astronaut. “It’s nice to have a record that you don’t have to have that qualifier [of ‘woman astronaut’],” she told BBC News. “When we don’t have to ask the question anymore, I think men and women will be equal, but this is kind of part of a process to get us to that point so that there won’t be a qualifier, it will just be who has that record.”
Whitson was the oldest female astronaut in space (at age 57), the oldest female spacewalker, and also holds the record for the most spacewalks by a woman (10 total, the last of which was completed in May 2017). She was the first female chief of the Astronaut Office (which she stepped down from in 2012 in order to be eligible to fly more missions).
The sheer number of records that Whitson holds is amazing; as a result, she was named one of TIME’s most influential people in the world for 2018, among the many many other honors she holds. But personally, Whitson is a hero for me because she didn’t take “no” for an answer and broke barriers for women across the board.
Growing up in Iowa, Whitson saw Neil Armstrong walk on the moon at the age of 9 years old on the television screen. During that moonwalk, something clicked for her and she knew that she wanted to be an astronaut one day. "First, becoming an astronaut was a dream, then it became a goal," she said in a MAKERS video. Her journey to space wasn’t without its bumps, though. In the excellent documentary One Strange Rock, Whitson recounts how Dr. James Van Allen, a famous scientist for whom the Van Allen radiation belts that surround the Earth are named, told her that she probably should find a different career because “astronaut” wasn’t worth her time or effort.
The effects of hearing that from such a renowned scientist must have been jarring, yet Whitson didn’t let that dissuade her. Her message is that we can’t allow others to derail our career choices, especially not men who think they know what’s best for us. It’s true that Whitson’s astronaut career could have ended before it even began; the pool is large and the application process is rigorous. But to look back over her career and think that it may not have happened because of some thoughtless advice is a gut punch for those of us who admire Whitson.
It’s hard to put into words what Whitson means to me personally. I, too, wanted to be an astronaut as a child, but my path diverged from that dream a long time ago. Instead, I’ve stayed on the ground, looking at the stars and following the journeys of others who made that incredible leap. Peggy Whitson has always been an inspiration, a sign that the most difficult of goals are worth working towards.
There are times when I become very dejected about my path as a space journalist; there’s a lot of sexism present in this field (as there are in so, so many others) and sometimes I find myself questioning whether this is the right job for me. But then I remember iconic figures like Peggy Whitson, who fought to achieve a dream that so many told her was out of her grasp. And she succeeded, beyond anyone’s wildest dreams.
As Whitson passes the torch to other female astronauts such as Samantha Cristoforetti, Jeanette Epps, and Serena Aunon-Chancellor, who is on the International Space Station now, it’s important to remember that we still have a lot of work to do when it comes to gender imbalance in space and the sciences. But we wouldn’t have gotten as far as we are today without Whitson’s dedication and hard work. I am sure this is not the last we’ll hear from her, as her passion and enthusiasm for space won’t stay contained for long.