If you’ve ever traveled somewhere that left you so enthralled that you wanted to go back over and over, then you get how Peggy Whitson feels about space.
She is a seasoned astronaut who has multiple achievements under her belt: She was the first woman to command the International Space Station, and in 2017 broke the record for most cumulative days in space of any American and female astronaut, with a count of 665.
Whitson retired from NASA nearly five years ago, but last month, at age 63, she packed up the necklace she wore on her wedding day, zipped her spacesuit one more time, and took flight in a SpaceX capsule as commander of the Ax-2 mission. It was sponsored by a private company, Axiom Space, where she now works as the director of human spaceflight. Three paying crew members traveled with her.
After returning to Earth, Whitson spoke with All Things Considered host Mary Louise Kelly and shared a few thoughts about the future of space exploration.
This interview has been edited slightly for clarity and brevity.
1. Space exploration will be a mix of public and private money
If you look at even the NASA missions returning to the moon, lots of different private space companies are involved in that process. And that includes Axiom Space, for instance, who are building the spacesuits that will be used by the NASA astronauts as they step on the moon again. So it’s exciting to be part of this changing philosophy of space and the efforts of commercial companies like Axiom Space. We intend to build the first commercial space station initially attached to the International Space Station, but to undock before the space station is decommissioned.
I think it’s a worldwide relationship between different companies and peoples, and that’s what makes it such a special time to be a part of the [Ax-2] mission, because [space exploration] is changing flavor and it’s exciting because there are going to be many more opportunities in the future.
2. More people will be able to go to space
Obviously some of it will take time to make it not cost-prohibitive, but the fact that we are taking those initial steps is really important now. If you look back at commercial aviation and how that occurred and the development of that process, you know, it also started off to be only a few people could be involved and then later more and more, and so now it’s pretty commonplace. I like to think that we’re doing some of the same steps in commercial spaceflight now.
3. The goals depend on the person — and the country — that’s traveling
Well, the objective of the mission is slightly different, obviously. My personal roles and responsibilities of taking care of the crew and ensuring their safety obviously are very similar. But our objectives were, we had one private astronaut, John Shoffner, who was trying to develop science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) outreach products for educators in the future, as well as doing research. And then we had two government sponsored astronauts from Saudi Arabia – the first female Saudi Arabian to fly in space and go to the International Space Station – and the second male to arrive.
So the objectives of the crew weren’t all that much different necessarily than a NASA mission, which is outreach and scientific investigations, but these were with the specific goals of expanding outreach in specific areas for Saudi – which hadn’t had a person in space for 40 years – and, you know, to inspire their youth as well as inspiring the youth in the United States.