As NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson prepares to return to Earth after a record-shattering stay aboard the International Space Station, the storytelling platform Makers is honoring her achievements by inaugurating her into a select group of trailblazing women called "Makers."
Ever since Whitson became the first woman to command the space station in 2007, she has broken multiple spaceflight records, especially during her latest expedition to the space station. Whitson broke Jeff Williams' record for the most cumulative days spent in space by a NASA astronaut. This mission was also the longest single spaceflight by a woman.
And that's just the beginning — this spring, she broke the record for the most spacewalks by a woman, became the first woman to command the space station twice and became the oldest woman to travel to space at the age of 57. [In Photos: Record-Breaking NASA Astronaut Peggy Whitson]
In an exclusive video interview with Makers, Whitson explains that she wanted to be an airline pilot and an astronaut when she was growing up, but that people around her often discouraged her from pursuing that dream because she was a girl. It wasn't until Whitson was in high school that NASA sent a woman to space for the first time. Sally Ride, the first female NASA astronaut, was a big influence for her, Whitson said in the video.
"It became much more motivating to see that there were women [in space], that women could do this job," she said. "I didn't tell a lot of people that that's what I wanted to do, because I thought they'd think I was just dreaming something that's not even possible."
After earning her doctorate in biochemistry, she applied to become a NASA astronaut. At first she was rejected, but she kept sending in applications for 10 years before NASA finally accepted her into the astronaut program. In 2002, she flew to the space station for the first time with Expedition 5. Five years later, she returned to the space station as the first female commander.
Even as women began to fly to space more frequently, they still faced some obstacles and discrimination on the job. When she and her crewmates went through a rough, off-course landing while returning from the space station in 2008, the Russian commander insinuated that the cause of the problem had something to do with Whitson's gender, she said in the video. "That was in spite of the fact that the previous crew, which was all male, had had the same problem," she added with a laugh.
Whitson also mentions that spacewalks are more challenging for women because NASA's spacesuits weren't designed for women's bodies, which tend to have smaller frames. Clearly, that obstacle hasn't stopped Whitson from successfully completing any spacewalks. With seven under her belt, she's somewhat of a professional by now and is known for breezing through her tasks. Whenever she assists other spacewalking astronauts with their spacewalks, helping them suit up and get out the door, she almost always gets everything done well ahead of schedule.
Elizabeth Bohnel, a senior producer at Makers, told Space.com that one thing she admires about Whitson and other Makers is that they never express any doubts about their abilities to do whatever a man can do or seek special attention just for being a woman in a male-dominated field.
"There still are not enough women registering to be astronauts, and it's still something that we all need to work at, and we all need to push towards showing women that they can do this and telling young girls that this is something they can do," Bohnel said.
Whitson isn't the only NASA astronaut to advocate for women in space; Mae Jemison and Leland Melvin have both been recognized by Makers for their work in enabling young women to pursue careers in STEM and at NASA. Several other NASA employees have been honored by Makers in its documentary series, "Makers: Women in Space."