Space & Innovation

Peggy Whitson's Record Caps a String of Important Milestones for Women in Space

This is just the latest in a series of records for Whitson, including first female to command the space station, first female to command it twice, and most spacewalks by a woman.

US astronaut Peggy Whitson has set many records during her spaceflight career. Across three voyages to the International Space Station, just this week she surpassed the US record for cumulative time in space, which previously stood at 534 days, 2 hours, and 49 minutes. She will remain on the space station for another five months, due to a mission extension related to the Soyuz spacecraft launch and landing schedule.

It is actually a huge honor to break a record like this, but it is an honor for me to be representing all the folks at NASA who make this spaceflight possible and make me setting this record feasible,” said Whitson during a recent Earth-to-space phone call with President Donald Trump. She appeared via video from the orbiting complex, under a banner that jokingly called her the “New US High-Time Space Ninja.”

During an April 13 media interview, Whitson said that despite her long career, she wouldn't mind going to the moon, Mars, or “some other destination.”

“Space station’s been phenomenal, but I would like to take some of the next steps,” she remarked. “I'm not sure if I will last that long, but I'll give it my best.”

This is just the latest in a series of records for Whitson, including first female to command the space station (2008), first female to command it twice (2017), and one other record that you can read about in this photo gallery showcasing some of the more famous female records in space.

First woman in space
In 1961, the Soviet Union was the first to put a human in space — the cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin. Shortly after Gagarin's historic flight, chief Soviet rocket engineer Sergei Korolev suggested that a female should follow. The country considered more than 400 applicants, selecting five females as the potential cosmonaut.

Valentina Tereshkova's working-class family background and her father's decorated military history worked in her favor. She flew successfully on June 16, 1963 and spent nearly three days in space. Her spaceflight, Vostok 6, was the only one she flew.

First American woman in space
The first female astronauts from the United States had to wait another 20 years after Tereshkova, until the space shuttle program arrived. This was partly due to the requirement that US astronauts had to be military test pilots, which automatically excluded females. Ride had a doctorate in physics and was selected by NASA as an astronaut candidate in 1978.

She was then selected as the first female in space, riding aboard STS-7 in June 1983. She followed up the feat with a second flight in 1984 aboard STS-41G,  and would have flown a third time (STS-61M) if that flight hadn't been canceled by the Challenger explosion of 1986. Ride served on the commission investigating the incident and later left NASA to become a physics professor.

First spacewalk by a woman
The first woman to perform a spacewalk was Svetlana Savitskaya, a Soviet Union cosmonaut. Her first spaceflight in 1982 on the Soyuz T-7 mission made her the second woman to fly in space. Savitskaya's next spaceflight in 1984 was to the Salyut 7 space station. The mission not only saw her become the second woman in space, but also the first woman to perform a spacewalk. Her extravehicular activity lasted three hours and 35 minutes.

First flight to include two women and first American woman to walk in space
Sally Ride was joined on the crew of STS-41G by astronaut Kathryn Sullivan, marking the first time a spaceflight had more than one female crew member on board.

The mission was also notable for Sullivan undertaking the first extravehicular activity by an American woman. She undertook a three-hour spacewalk with her colleague David Leestma on October 11, 1984, testing the Orbital Refueling System and showing how satellites could be refueled in orbit.

Most spacewalks by a woman
This record is also held by the venerable Peggy Whitson, who broke the record in late March when she accomplished her eighth spacewalk. She and NASA astronaut Shane Kimbrough attempted to put four thermal protection shields on the Tranquility module of the International Space Station. Although one of the shields was lost, the astronauts successfully installed the rest of them. The fourth shield was replaced with a cover, allowing them to finish the job.

Most women in space at the same time
Back in 2010, the shuttle flight STS-131 helped set a mark for female participation: its seven-member crew had three female astronauts flying to space at the same time: Dorothy “Dottie” Metcalf-Lindenburger, Stephanie Wilson, and Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency astronaut Naoko Yamazaki. When they reached the International Space Station, the shuttle astronauts joined a crew that included flight engineer Tracy Caldwell Dyson. The combined crews meant that four women were working in space simultaneously, which was a first.

Longest spaceflight by a woman
Samantha Cristoforetti was the first Italian female to fly in space, captivating audiences worldwide with her adept use of social media — as well as her love of Star Trek. The former Italian Air Force pilot flew aboard Expeditions 42 and 43 from 2014 into 2015. A problem with a Russian freighter headed toward the station extended her mission by a month. She ended up spending more than 199 days in space, breaking NASA astronaut Sunita Williams's previous record of 195 days and making her the female with the longest continuous stretch of time in orbit.

In between a busy schedule of spacewalks and experiments, Cristoforetti also brewed the first espresso in space.