Peggy Whitson is America’s most experienced astronaut with 675 days in space. She just returned from her fourth orbital flight.
Axiom Space recently completed its second crewed spaceflight mission to and from the International Space Station via a SpaceX Dragon Capsule. Whitson, now director of human spaceflight at Axiom, served as mission commander for Ax-2.
CNBC’s “Manifest Space” podcast sits down Talk to the retired NASA astronaut about her return to space, the commercialization of human spaceflight, and her thoughts on the private space economy.
The following has been edited for length and clarity.
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Let’s talk about the mission, what did you accomplish and what was it like doing it as a private astronaut?
Of course, I would love to go to space. It’s like my second home. I want to go, but it’s really exciting for me to be a part of this ever-changing space age. That’s what makes this flight special to me. I like to think of it as an evolution where we’re changing the idea that humans belong in space. And, we have a purpose there. So, for me, it’s a bit different than my past sources.
You’re back on the space station, you’re the commander of the space station, and you’ve been there many times before. What’s it like to return as a visitor, for lack of anything better?
It’s a different perspective for me. I do have unique experiences. This is my first time commanding a launch vehicle. So that’s a novel part of the experience. As part of NASA astronauts, I have had many experiences where we swapped command responsibilities. So it’s just another aspect of it. The station master takes the lead on the station, and on the dragon, I take the lead. So it’s just an interesting shift of roles and responsibilities depending on where you are. But it’s nice to be back there and see this place. Some things are in the same place as I left them. …even some of the bags have my handwriting on them.
You have now flown multiple spaceships and rockets. What’s it like to work with SpaceX? What was it like to fly in Dragon and launch from Falcon 9 vs. Soyuz or Space Shuttle?
On the Dragon, I love the crew interface and the displays because they integrate the data and the program, and it makes it easy for my user perspective to really understand what’s going on, what’s going on, and align with the vehicle. So it’s very exciting. Landing on water is definitely better than landing on the ground. There is a lot less rolling around.
How fast do you think human spaceflight is becoming more common, commercial and accessible?
I think visits from many countries and individuals will increase. But I also think that as we start to develop the commercial side of the space station, it will also bring other companies that want to develop products, for example, pharmaceuticals or other things, aboard commercial space stations, so I’m excited about that future. Because of the Axiom — and NASA’s design, our space station is initially attached to the ISS, then built from there and departs before the ISS de-orbits in 2030 — (this) gives us the opportunity to have a really good proving ground and Open it up for access a little earlier.
Will you be doing more spaceflights like this?
Oh, I sure hope so.
How involved are you in the development of these commercial space stations? Or in terms of training around the future teams that will be performing these tasks? What is your day-to-day work with this space startup like?
One of the most interesting things for me is talking to these young, innovative engineers. We have a really great group of people who have worked on the station and… know what not to do again. (They) come up with these new, new innovative ideas, and I start talking to these young people and say, ‘Well, that’s a great idea, and that idea can work in space. This one, you’re going to have to wrestle with that, because it’s not practical in space for that reason. I can use my experience to help them design and fine-tune without doing all the research myself. This excites me. Also, one of the things that I love to do, and one that I developed during my time at NASA, is expedition crew skills. Hence the soft skills that crew members use and interact with each other. Like teamwork, leadership, followership, self-care, group care, these are all important aspects of the mission, especially when you live in a small, confined space, or, you know, away from your family, etc.
Your career has been incredible. Did you always think you would be an astronaut?
Well, it’s been a long road for me. I was 9 years old when Neil Armstrong took his first steps on the moon, and you know, even at 9, I found that very inspiring. That’s why I hope we can inspire young people our age, because for me, it stuck. Although I’m a farm kid and a farm girl, I really don’t know if this will be an option for me. But this is my dream. It wasn’t until I graduated high school and NASA selected the first female astronauts that I really felt like, hey, this, this is possible, I can do it. Two of the astronauts have degrees in medicine and the other has a degree in biochemistry. I am very interested in biochemistry myself. So I think it might actually be possible. Fortunately, I don’t know how hard it (will be). But I set my own path, I got my undergraduate and graduate degrees, and I started working at NASA. Of course, as soon as I got my graduate degree, I applied to be an astronaut. I applied for 10 years and was rejected. And I always like to tell young people that sometimes your path isn’t always a straight line to your goal. During those 10 years, I can now look back and say that those 10 years gave me the training I needed, I was selected as the first female commander and the first female and non-military chief of spaceflight clerk’s office. It’s the 10 years that have made that possible. So, in the end, I got more than I ever dreamed possible.
What’s the coolest thing about being in space? Is it a space walk?
The coolest mission in space is definitely a spacewalk. This is you in a spacesuit, which is basically a little spaceship built for one person. That was amazing. I walk in space. This is my first time wearing an American suit. On my first flight, I did an EVA (extravehicular activity) in a Russian suit. But on my second flight, I did a spacewalk. I pulled out a box – it was a baseband signal processor, but it needed to be replaced, so I pulled that out. And then behind that is the reflective insulation thing, but it’s like a mirror reflection. I see myself in a space suit. I saw the solar panels and the Earth behind me and thought, I’m an “astronaut”! It’s special.
When you go on another space flight, what’s your dream crew? Is there anyone you would like to go on a space trip with? It can be anyone.
I thought, you know, it was fun to fly with three new people because it made me relive the first time. I’d pick anyone who wants to be part of the team because to me what makes a team different is the people who try to be part of the team. So I want people who want to make and build it.
“Manifest Space,” hosted by CNBC’s Morgan Brennan, focuses on the billionaires and brains behind the expanding opportunity beyond the atmosphere. Brennan speaks with tycoons, industry leaders and startups in today’s satellite, space and defense industry. exist”Manifestation Space” Sit back, relax and get ready to take off.