CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – Astronaut Peggy Whitson is closing out a space streak unmatched by any other American.
The world's most experienced spacewoman is due back on Earth this weekend following 91/2 months at the International Space Station. Counting all her flights, she will have logged 665 days in space – the equivalent of more than 11/2 years.
First stop tonight is Kazakhstan as usual for a Russian Soyuz capsule touchdown, then a brief detour to Germany before heading home to storm-crippled Houston.
During her third and latest mission, which began last November, the 57-year-old biochemist became the oldest woman in space. She performed her 10th spacewalk, more than any other woman. And she became the first woman to command the space station twice.
On the eve of her landing, Whitson said she's craving pizza – and flush toilets.
“Trust me, you don't want to know the details,” she said via email in response to questions from the Associated Press.
She said her home in Houston is fine, but so many friends and co-workers were not as fortunate. Johnson Space Center in Houston remains closed until Tuesday except for essential personnel, such as those staffing Mission Control for the space station. She said the team was sleeping on cots at the space center at one time.
Whitson said she will “hugely miss the freedom of floating and moving with the lightest of touch, especially those first few days after my return when gravity will especially SUCK.”
This flight alone lasted 288 days, much longer than intended. A seat opened up on a Soyuz capsule, and NASA took advantage of it to keep her in orbit three extra months.
Only one other American – yearlong spaceman Scott Kelly – has spent more time off the planet in a single shot.
Whitson, who is returning with cosmonaut Fyodor Yurchikhin and newbie U.S. astronaut Jack Fischer, said she could have stayed in orbit longer; the exercise equipment up there is better than ever for keeping bones and muscles strong.
She has been an astronaut since 1996 and is married to a fellow biochemist, Clarence Sams, who works at the space center.
A farm girl from Iowa, Whitson enjoyed growing vegetables on the space station, all part of scientific research, and especially enjoyed sampling some of the results. After so long in space, she longed for fresh produce and did her best to jazz up the freeze-dried and just-add-water space meals.
What's next for Whitson?
“I am not sure what the future holds for me personally, but I envision myself continuing to work on spaceflight programs,” she wrote.
Station officials would like nothing better.
“She needs to be our blueprint,” said Dan Hartman, the station's deputy program manager.