Just after dawn Sunday, a Soyuz capsule broke through Earth’s atmosphere and hurtled toward the sprawling grasslands of central Kazakhstan. Even with a parachute dragging its speed, the spacecraft crashed into the ground, triggering an imposing cloud of sand and smoke.
On the other side of the world, a voice calmly called the sequence of events for NASA: “Touchdown. Touchdown confirmed.”
Soon after, helicopter and ground crews rushed to retrieve the three people — NASA astronauts Peggy Whitson and Jack Fischer and Russian cosmonaut Fyodor Yurchikhin — from the toppled capsule. Last to be plucked from the Soyuz, according to the Associated Press, was Whitson, who was given a pair of sunglasses and a bouquet of flowers with a note that read, “Welcome back, Peggy.”
It was a simple message to conclude a mission to the International Space Station that cemented Whitson in the annals of space legends. Her return to Earth this weekend wrapped up 288 days in space, the longest time in orbit in a single spaceflight for a female astronaut. The mission also made her the U.S. astronaut, male or female, with the most cumulative time in space, at 665 days.
Whitson has commanded the International Space Station twice, the only female astronaut to do so. In March, in the middle of routine maintenance outside the ISS, Whitson set the record for the female astronaut with the most cumulative spacewalking time, at 53 hours and 22 minutes. Though she had been scheduled to return to Earth in June, she extended her time in orbit by three extra months after a spot on the Soyuz opened up.
Whitson would go on to surpass the records she had just set, eventually marking 10 separate spacewalks and logging 60 hours and 21 minutes of cumulative spacewalking time. (Russian cosmonaut Anatoly Solovyev holds the all-time spacewalking record, with 16 separate spacewalks and more than 82 hours of cumulative spacewalking time.)
Among her litany of accomplishments, NASA notes, almost as an afterthought: Whitson broke all these records at age 57, and also set a record for the world’s oldest spacewoman.
One of the first phone calls Whitson received back on Earth was from President Trump, who called both NASA astronauts as they were flying home to Houston.
“I want to congratulate Peggy and Jack for their incredible accomplishments. They make us all very proud,” Trump said, in a White House statement. “Exploration has always been at the core of who we are as Americans, and their brave contributions to human space flight have continued that great tradition.”
It wasn’t the first time the two spoke by phone. In April, Trump called the International Space Station to congratulate Whitson for breaking the record for cumulative time spent in space by any U.S. astronaut.
“Peggy is an inspiration to us all, especially to young women interested in or currently pursuing careers in science, technology, engineering and math,” Trump said.
Robert Lightfoot, NASA’s acting administrator, said he appreciated the president’s phone call to Whitson and Fischer.
“The president has had the opportunity to hear from Peggy and Jack firsthand how the work aboard the International Space Station is directly pushing the boundaries of human knowledge, and advancing American leadership in the boundless frontier of space,” Lightfoot said. “I want to add my thanks to the teams on the ground across the globe, especially in Houston, who are dealing with the aftermath of a Harvey, yet still maintained the focus to get Peggy and Jack home safely. It is an amazing team.”
A NASA representative said Whitson was not yet available for interviews Tuesday.
Whitson, a native of Iowa, earned a doctorate in biochemistry at Rice University in Houston; outside of training for space missions, she enjoys weightlifting, biking, basketball and water skiing, according to her NASA bio.
She has made a large impact on the space program's scientific research. “In space she's able to just work so efficiently that in general we can schedule a lot more activities for her than we normally can for crew members,” Ellen Ochoa, a former astronaut and the current director of the Johnson Space Center, told The Post. “For us to be able to have had her in orbit between nine to 10 months, we just got so much done with her up there.”
She said Whitson's “tremendous work ethic” showed both in space and on the ground — something that was evident even 20 years ago, when the two first met.
“I learned early on never to follow her in the gym because she can bench-press and legpress maybe like four times what I can,” Ochoa said, laughing.
Even in space, Whitson (a.k.a. @AstroPeggy on Twitter) gained a following for her exuberant social-media dispatches from aboard the space station that showed her doing everything from growing cabbage (“My 3rd crop did the best!") to strength training without gravity to conducting stem-cell research (“my favorite so far").
“It is one of those rides that you hope never ends,” Whitson tweeted in April, shortly after she decided to extend her time in space by three months. “I am so grateful for all those who helped me on each of my missions! #LifeInSpace”