Female astronaut Peggy Whitson touched down on Earth with two colleagues on Saturday, completing a safe return from the International Space Station and setting new records for astronauts everywhere.
Whitson had been in space with the ISS for 288 days, which combined with previous visits meant that she had been in space for over 665 days. CBS reported that this is 131 days more than her closest NASA competitor and is the eighth most logged by any astronaut. Russian cosmonaut Fyodor Yurchikhin, who is seventh with 673 days, also touched down on Saturday along Whitson and NASA astronaut Jack Fischer.
The touchdown to Earth happened without incident, as the three astronauts landed in Kazakhstan and were promptly picked up by Russian and American support crews. A health check found them in good health, though the three will now have to begin the process of re-acclimatizing to gravity and undergoing additional health tests.
Unfortunately, Whitson and Fischer’s return to America ran into complications because of Hurricane Harvey. The hurricane forced NASA officials to close the facility to everyone but essential personnel, and that skeleton crew monitored the space station while sleeping in sleeping bags and performing heroically. Instead of directly returning to Houston, the American astronauts will use a European Space Agency plane to fly to Germany and will then arrive in Houston on Sunday night.
No one spends nearly two years in space without great passion for the work, and Whitson enjoyed a great many things about being in space. In an interview with the Associated Press released on Friday, she talked about how she will miss the freedom of floating in space and working in a magnificent structure which is traveling so fast and needs so much detail. When she was asked what she looked forward to most on Earth, she mentioned flush toilets and pizza.
Whitson’s first space voyage was in 2002, followed by another in 2007. Those previous stays lasted about six months and thus were shorter than her record-breaking stay of nine months in space. But when asked about her record, Whitson pointed out that breaking records represents how humanity is moving forward in space exploration and observed that she could have stayed in space for a year.
While Whitson and Fischer recover and debrief ground crew about details such as which repair policies or tools worked best in space, just three crew members will run the ISS until September 12 when three additional crew members will arrive. The makeup will be two Russian cosmonauts, three American astronauts, and one Italian from the European space agency.
At 57 years old, Whitson may have visited the ISS for the final time. But Whitson is filled with determination and in her interview stated that she envisions herself “continuing to work on spaceflight programs.”
[Featured image by Bill Ingalls/Getty Images]