NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson returned Earth on Saturday, marking the end of her record-breaking time in space. Whitson spent several months working on the International Space Station, the $100-billion orbiting laboratory located about 250 miles above Earth.
The astronaut made the trip back home with NASA astronaut Jack Fischer and Roscosmos cosmonaut Fyodor Yurchikhin. The trio safely landed the Soyuz MS-04 capsule on Earth at 9:21 EDT Saturday southeast of Dzhezkazgan in Kazakhstan.
Whitson and Fischer contributed to hundreds of experiments in biology, physical science, biotechnology, and Earth science during their stay at the orbiting outpost. Whitson, 57, now holds the U.S. record for most time in space, as she totals 665 days in orbit.
Three crewmates depart the ISS and arrive at Earth packed with scientific experiments
This marked Whitson’s third mission to the ISS. Her 288-day mission to the space outpost –which spanned 122.2 million miles and 4,623 orbits of our planet—began in November last year. She performed four spacewalks, bringing her overall total to ten. The biochemist has repeatedly shared her enthusiasm and love for her job.
“I feel great,” said Whitson during an in-flight interview on Monday, according to Reuters. “I love working up here. It’s one of the most gratifying jobs I’ve ever had.”
Whitson spent most of her time in the mission working on numerous scientific experiments. Fischer and Whitson supported research in a study on how astronaut’s eyes can change due to prolonged exposure to a microgravity environment. The duo also conducted a new lung tissue study that analyzes how stem cells work in the microgravity environment of the space station, which could help for future research on stem cells.
NASA says Fischer and Whitson also worked on a study on antibody investigation, to increase the effectiveness of chemotherapy drugs for cancer treatment, as well as a study of plant physiology and growth in space using an advanced plant habitat.
The astronauts, who also welcomed cargo spacecraft delivering tons of supplies, food, and research experiments, helped to attach the Cosmic Ray Energetics and Mass Investigation (ISS CREAM) on the exterior of the ISS in August, which is currently observing cosmic rays from across the galaxy.
Whitson is the first non-pilot women to become chief of NASA’s Astronauts Corp
Whitson also set a record for the most time spent spacewalking by a woman. She was due to return to Earth three months ago with the two crewmates who traveled with her in November. However, she stayed longer to fill a vacancy after Russia announced it would reduce its station staff from three to two cosmonauts.
During another in-flight interview, Whitson said she looked forward to reuniting with her loved ones.
“I’m looking forward to seeing friends and family,” she said, according to Reuters. “But the thing I’ve been thinking about the most, kind of been fantasizing about a little bit, are foods that I want to make, vegetables that I want to sauté, things that I’ve missed up here.”
Back in April, she broke the 534-day U.S. record for cumulative time in space. She is now part of a space hall of fame that includes seven Russian cosmonauts in the first spots. The world record-holder for cumulative time in space is Russian cosmonaut Gennady Padalka, who spent a total 878 days in orbit.
Whitson grew up in Iowa and says she was drawn to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration after the U.S. Apollo program that landed men on the moon. When women were able to join the space agency, she also applied. Whitson became an astronaut in 1996 and was the first woman to command the ISS and the first woman and first non-pilot to serve as chief of the NASA Astronauts Corps.
NASA went above and beyond to keep operations running after Harvey
Yurchikhin, who came back with the American astronauts, also broke his record, as he has spent a total of 673 days in space, putting him seventh (one spot higher than Whitson) on the all-time space endurance list.
The Russian cosmonaut will head to Russia’s cosmonaut center in Moscow, and Fischer and Whitson will go to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. Because hurricane Harvey caused severe damages all across Houston, NASA was forced to close the center temporarily and to come up with a contingency plan for getting Fischer and Whitson home.
NASA teamed up with the European Space Agency and sent the astronauts to the ESA center in Cologne, Germany. There, the NASA Gulfstream jet is scheduled to pick them up and carry them back to Houston on Sunday night. Whitson recently said NASA has been working non-stop after Harvey.
“Our home is fine, but so many friends and co-workers have been impacted [by the storm],” Whitson said in an interview with NASA, according to Space.com. “For example, in order to keep mission control running, the team (three shifts of a skeleton support crew) were sleeping on cots in the backup mission control rooms. Their sacrifices for the station and keeping things running up here are amazing.”