Space, a final frontier of quiet heroism
Peggy Whitson’s historic career as an astronaut is an object lesson in understated bravery.
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.