Space, a fi­nal frontier of quiet hero­ism

Peggy Whit­son’s his­toric ca­reer as an as­tro­naut is an ob­ject les­son in un­der­stated brav­ery.

Sunday News - - NEWS -

THE world was such a dif­fer­ent place when my new hero Peggy Whit­son left Earth last Novem­ber.

John Key was still prime min­is­ter and his party seemed to be cruis­ing to an in­evitable fourth term; Don­ald Trump had won the US elec­tion but was yet to move in to the White House; and the Myan­mar mil­i­tary was just a month into the eth­nic cleans­ing of its Mus­lim Ro­hingya pop­u­la­tion – a peo­ple the UN de­scribed as the most per­se­cuted mi­nor­ity in the world.

When Whit­son touched back down to Earth this week the Amer­i­can as­tro­naut had writ­ten her name into the his­tory books.

At 57, she’s the world’s old­est space woman; she’s the first woman to com­mand the In­ter­na­tional Space Sta­tion twice; and her cu­mu­la­tive 655 days in space are the most for any Amer­i­can.

She’s also our planet’s most ex­pe­ri­enced space walker with 10. That’s pretty ex­tra­or­di­nary con­sid­er­ing that, on a space walk, you’re teth­ered to a satel­lite that is 400km up and trav­el­ling at just over 7km per sec­ond. That’s fast enough to or­bit the planet in only 92 min­utes.

Whit­son must have nerves of ti­ta­nium. If an as­tro­naut be­comes un­teth­ered and can’t jet­pack to safety, Earth’s grav­ity will trap them in an or­bit while they wait eight hours for their oxy­gen sup­ply to run out.

If their suit is da­m­aged, they’ll be un­con­scious in 15 sec­onds, just as the lack of air pres­sure makes their bod­ily flu­ids start to boil and their body swell to twice its size. Just as well the tether has a strength of nearly 500kg.

As won­drous as the view would be, I can’t imag­ine a more ter­ri­fy­ing feel­ing than be­ing out there in space with just a 26m length of braided steel keep­ing me safe.

All the In­ter­na­tional Space Sta­tion sci­en­tists must be in­cred­i­bly brave, and prob­a­bly don’t watch the sci-fi flicks I’ve seen in which some hap­less as­tro­naut ends up float­ing into the void.

They re­ally should cast th­ese movies more ac­cu­rately to re­flect how astro­nauts ac­tu­ally look like your average friendly sci­ence teacher, and not at all like Hol­ly­wood’s square-jawed leads.

Astro­nauts like Peggy Whit­son ac­tu­ally look like your average friendly sci­ence teacher, and not at all like the square-jawed leads that Hol­ly­wood tends to cast.’

On Whit­son’s land­ing in Kaza­khstan, she was given flow­ers, sun­glasses and a card that must have been writ­ten by a Kiwi, it was so low-key after such an amaz­ing feat. It read: ‘‘Welcome back Peggy.’’

Whit­son is a bio­chemist and is un­com­fort­able with praise for break­ing records. She main­tains the real buzz is that her ac­com­plish­ments mean space ex­plo­ration is get­ting longer and the space sta­tion, which has now been up nearly 17 years, is still go­ing strong. The things she was look­ing for­ward to were pizza and us­ing a reg­u­lar flush toi­let.

Th­ese few peo­ple who get to ex­pe­ri­ence the in­cred­i­ble feel­ing of look­ing at Earth from space must be per­ma­nently changed by the ex­pe­ri­ence. Whit­son her­self seemed quite wist­ful, say­ing she would ‘‘miss see­ing the en­chant­ingly peace­ful limb of our Earth. Un­til the end of my days my eyes will search the hori­zon to see that curve’’.

I can’t help won­der­ing what this in­cred­i­ble sci­en­tist feels at be­ing back after nine months in space and whether – given every­thing go­ing on in Earth th­ese days – she wouldn’t rather be back in space.

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