I Wonder Why That Happened?

— Written By

Imagine waking up each morning, drinking your coffee bubbles, and checking to see the messages “from the ground” instructing you on your duties for the day. The view out the window varies with each look because you are traveling around the earth so fast there is a sunrise or sunset every forty-five minutes. Your job assignment will be different than yesterday and could range from performing important world-changing experiments to life-saving device repairs on your CO2 filters or spacewalking. Your life on the International Space Station is a delight and a challenge (like playing fort, but you’re changing the world!). 

This might describe the six hundred sixty-five space days for Dr. Peggy Whitson during her career with NASA, a world record for any NASA astronaut at the time of her retirement in June of 2018. An Iowa native, Peggy grew up in a small community, much like Lee County. It was a time of wonder and innovation, and at nine years old she watched Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walk on the moon. She also, perhaps not coincidentally, followed her siblings into their local 4-H chicken club. Through 4-H, Peggy overcame her extreme shyness, later giving credit to 4-H opportunities such as public speaking. She has done numerous video interviews with no sign of that self-described, shy child that held a simple dream of flying.

As Peggy was graduating from high school her dreams were further inspired while she watched the first female astronauts chosen for the Apollo program and her goals began to take shape. It took hard work, determination, perseverance, dedication, but she believes the journey made her better at her job. She got her doctorate in biochemistry from Rice University in 1985. At fifty-seven, Dr. Whitson became the oldest female astronaut to reach orbit and eventually the first and second female commander aboard the International Space Station for two of her three tours. On these missions, she and her team performed hundreds of zero-gravity experiments in areas of biology, earth science, human research, physical science, and technology. She performed ten spacewalks for a record-setting total of sixty hours and twenty-one minutes.

This amazing 4-H spokesperson and alumnae said, “In order to find your limits, it is necessary to step beyond your comfort zone and try new and challenging things. It just might inspire you. The 4-H program is one way young people can practice expanding their experiences, knowledge, and skills.” She is correct, and her comments align with the 4-H slogan that young people “Learn by Doing”. During one interview, Dr. Whitson shared a mistake she made while testing the space reaction suspended iron particles in a liquid have in an electromagnetic field. This mistake actually led to a new discovery about the behavior of iron at a previously untested frequency and further experiments yielded new uses for this iron suspension. Dr. Whitson found this remarkable and shared with her elementary student audience how science encouraged her to look down and ask, “Why did that happen?”

Another of Dr. Whitson’s favorite things about being an astronaut was looking out over space and seeing the beauty, figuring out how to capture that beauty, and how to share it with folks on earth from the International Space Station two hundred fifty miles above the earth. Her perspective looking down on a meteor, “That thing must have just passed me,” is a striking contrast to what we observe as a shooting star from earth. 

In April of 2017, as she floated in front of a banner naming her the Space Ninja, President Donald Trump congratulated Dr. Whitson on her accomplishment of setting the record for continuous days in space, two hundred eighty-nine, five hours, and one minute. President Trump reminded us about the Inspire Women Act encouraging STEM careers and a bill directing the space program to send a manned spacecraft to Mars over the next ten years. The message for students today is how entrepreneurship and space exploration is exploding into commercial programs to fuel NASA infrastructure “into the stars.” It’s time to get excited! Scientists have invented a toilet currently used in space that turns liquid waste into drinking water, so not even the sky is a limit anymore! NASA wants to inspire young people’s interest in these fields and Dr. Witson encouraged her young audience to push themselves to do things beyond the realm of possibility.

Space exploration is constantly changing, and in a brief two and a half years, (one year after Dr. Whitson’s retirement), it was time to honor a new pioneer. On December 27, 2019, students from NC State University and the NC School of Math and Science made a YouTube video congratulating NC State University graduate and Astronaut Christina Hammock Koch. She set a new record for the longest single spaceflight by a woman, surpassing Dr. Peggy Witson’s record. NC State University is one of the land grant universities supporting N.C. 4-H in Lee County and all over the state. In 2020, please encourage Lee County young people to use 4-H resources and “Learn by Doing.”  Your local 4-H creates opportunities to look down and wonder why that happened, and who knows, in ten years maybe they will be a part of that 2030 manned mission to Mars.