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Veteran astronaut Peggy Whitson says more private space flights are in the horizon

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

If you've ever traveled somewhere that left you so enthralled, you wanted to go back over and over, then you get how Peggy Whitson feels about space. Whitson is an astronaut, the first woman to command the International Space Station. She broke the American record for cumulative days in space - 665. Well, that was back in 2017. She told NPR that same year she was probably done but that she would miss it.

PEGGY WHITSON: Anyone that's ever gone to space is always wanting to go back. You get addicted to it.

KELLY: So addicted that last month, at age 63, she un-retired and signed on as commander of the Ax-2 mission for a private company, Axiom Space, where she works as the director of human spaceflight. On board with her - three paying passengers, including Rayyanah Barnawi and another Saudi astronaut. Peggy Whitson, welcome back to Earth.

WHITSON: Well, it's - I would say it's great to be back, but it was great to be up there, too. So it was a great experience all around.

KELLY: What made you say yes to this mission? - because you told us back in 2017 you thought you were done with going to space.

WHITSON: I thought I was done because I didn't think there would be opportunities. Luckily for me, Axiom Space had these opportunities become available, and I, of course, signed up with a jumping up and down kind of a response.

KELLY: Oh, really? Like, what was - they didn't have to pitch very hard to persuade you that you should sign on.

WHITSON: No, absolutely not.

KELLY: What appealed to you about - I mean, you've spent your career at NASA. What appealed to you about a private mission?

WHITSON: Space really is changing - you know, the character of space and how it is - exploration is occurring. You know, if you look at even the NASA missions going to the - 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.

KELLY: It's so interesting. I was going to ask you, is the future of space exploration private? If I'm hearing you right, it's - you see it as a partnership, that public and private are going to have to work together going forward.

WHITSON: Oh, absolutely. I think it's a worldwide relationship of different companies and peoples. And that's what makes it such a special time to be a part of the mission because, you know, there are going to be many more opportunities in the future. And trying to expand that horizon as part of my initial steps here is a lot of fun for me to be making history in that kind of way.

KELLY: So talk to me about some of the work you did on this mission. I gather among the research projects that you and your crew worked on was one involving cancer cells. How did that go?

WHITSON: That was great. That was one I was involved with. But they were looking at different types of cancer cells. They like to use zero gravity because the cells grow a little bit more like they do in your body and maybe a little bit faster. And that helps them test things like drugs to prevent them or to reduce the effects of the growth in space. And so it was exciting for me to be a part of one of those studies. And, you know, as a life scientist, I really enjoyed, you know, the stem cell research and all the life sciences-type research that we were doing.

KELLY: I mentioned how deeply experienced you are. What is the weight of being in space and commanding crew members who are rookies, who've never been up there before?

KELLY: Well, I've actually flown before with numerous rookies. And, you know, it's actually, I think, kind of fun because you get to relive the experience of being there through their eyes. You know, it's like watching a young child experiencing something for the first time. And in my case, I get - I got to see on this mission three people experiencing space for the first time. So it was a lot of fun for me to relive my experience as well through them.

KELLY: Do you feel the wonder of it all over again, of looking down...

WHITSON: Absolutely.

KELLY: ...And thinking, oh, my God, that's Earth.

WHITSON: Well, and just, you know, the wonder of, you know, learning how to fly in space, you know, float around and, you know, be effective and just that sheer joy of being able to move so easily and, in my mind, gracefully. I don't feel like I'm particularly graceful here on Earth (laughter).

KELLY: And then I want to ask about recovery now that you're back on Earth. You returned last week. Do you get jet lag? I'm thinking if I fly to Tokyo, it takes me a week to feel human again. What's it like coming home from space?

WHITSON: There was a little bit of, in essence, jet lag. We are on Greenwich Mean Time while we were in space. And so, you know, it's a five-hour difference between here and Central Time. And so, you know, there is a little bit of that jet lag going on, the - you know, those feelings of whether they're neuro-vestibular, you know, being a little bit off balance. Those to me seemed to recover much more quickly after this short flight than they did after my long flights. So I do think your body learns a little bit from it, and I do think duration makes a difference on the impacts.

KELLY: Is it true that your nickname is space ninja?

WHITSON: Yeah. My last space flight when I broke the U.S. record, Jack Fisher, my crewmate on board - he named me the space ninja.

KELLY: Is this a nickname you wear with pride?

WHITSON: Oh, yeah, actually. There could be a lot worse names. I think it's kind of a cool one.

KELLY: I would agree.

WHITSON: So I like it.

KELLY: Yeah.

WHITSON: And he spent the whole mission trying to get the ground team to call me the space ninja. And so - and eventually they did.

(LAUGHTER)

KELLY: I mean, I'm asking in part because I remember when you talked to us before a few years ago, you were wrestling with seeing yourself as a role model. And I wonder, how about now? Does that mantle sit - rest a little easier?

WHITSON: Yeah, it does. And it was actually one of the things I shared with Rayyanah being the first Saudi woman in space. You know, I told her, hey; it's a short mission. You got to start owning this before you fly. And, you know, I tried to help her on what - the fact that she needed to actually embrace the fact that she is a role model and will be a huge role model in her country.

KELLY: Oh, that's interesting. So you're role modeling how to be a role model...

WHITSON: Yeah.

KELLY: ...For the next generation.

WHITSON: Because I struggled with that some, so I wanted to make sure she started off on the right foot.

KELLY: So I got to ask, are you done? Was that the last trip?

WHITSON: Not if I get another chance.

KELLY: I love it. Astronaut Peggy Whitson, thank you so much for being with us today, and welcome home.

WHITSON: All right. Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Alejandra Marquez Janse
Alejandra Marquez Janse is a producer for NPR's evening news program All Things Considered. She was part of a team that traveled to Uvalde, Texas, months after the mass shooting at Robb Elementary to cover its impact on the community. She also helped script and produce NPR's first bilingual special coverage of the State of the Union – broadcast in Spanish and English.
Tinbete Ermyas
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
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