Mt Pleasant News

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Neighbors Growing Together | Sep 19, 2018

NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson receives IW’s Presidential Medal for Outstanding Merit, key to the city

Shoot for the moon, you might land at the International Space Station
Feb 15, 2018
Photo by: Grace King Peggy Whitson was presented the Key to the City by Mayor Steve Brimhall on Wednesday, Feb. 14, as a part of Iowa Wesleyan University’s Founder’s Day celebrations. Whitson graduated from IW in 1981. After graduating, Whitson pursued a career at NASA and has completed three missions to the International Space Station.

By Karyn Spory, Mt. Pleasant News


Life, on Earth or in outer space, is what you make of it. NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson has made a lot out of hers.

As a child, Whitson would walk the soybean rows, hoe in hand, looking for cockleburs on her parent’s farm near Beaconsfield. Decades later, she was once again carefully eyeing soybeans, but this time conducting research in the International Space Station as part of Expedition 5.

“If I hadn’t become an astronaut, I may have become one of those people that genetically engineered soybeans so you could put herbicides on them so you could kill the cockleburs and save future generations of child laborers,” she said as Iowa Wesleyan Chapel filled with laughter.

Whitson, a 1981 graduate of Iowa Wesleyan, was the keynote speaker at the university’s Founder’s Day celebration on Wednesday, Feb. 14.

During the celebration, Whitson received Wesleyan’s Presidential Medal for Outstanding Merit and was presented with a key to the city of Mt. Pleasant. After leaving Mt. Pleasant, Whitson went on to become a record-breaking NASA astronaut. Whitson was the first female to command the International Space Station, which she has now done twice, she also holds the record for longest single space flight by a woman and has spent more time in space than any American.

But becoming a record-breaking astronaut didn’t happen overnight, Whitson told the crowd. It took a little bit of dreaming and a lot of hard work. “All of life’s experiences make us what we are. Some of those experiences have really positive effects, while others are considered not optimal. But we learn from all of those experiences and what we do with those experiences is the most important thing,” she said. “It is our will, our drive and our desires, that’s what truly defines us.”

The seeds of desire to become an astronaut were first planted in 1969 when nine-year-old Whitson watched as U.S. astronauts landed on the moon for the first time. A year later, her father received his pilot’s license and Whitson took her first flight. “I will never forget taking off from that grass strip and flying over the cornfield,” Whitson said. The enormity of the moment was palpable to the audience as Whitson’s voice broke, the auditorium silent for a second as she reflected on that moment. “That seed of inspiration was nourished by the experiences I had,” she said.

As a teenager, she raised and sold chickens, saving the money to pay for her own flying lessons and in 1978, the same year she graduated high school, the first female class of astronauts were admitted into NASA’s training program. “In my mind, that’s the time the dream became a reality.”

As Whitson spoke, she wove the story of how she became an astronaut. She chuckled when she said she almost went for a triple major because after only three years she had earned degrees in biology and chemistry from Iowa Wesleyan, the only college she wanted to go to and a community that had become home. The auditorium once again erupted in laughter when she spoke about her meeting with Mt. Pleasant native Dr. James Van Allen, a revered space scientist who established the field of magnetospheric research.

“He was working on some robotic satellites so I was able to see some really cool space hardware for the first time,” recounted Whitson. “When I asked him about becoming an astronaut, he told me the whole astronaut thing was a ‘flash in the pan’ and it wouldn’t last.”

Van Allen wasn’t the only one who didn’t believe Whitson should become an astronaut. After graduating from Rice University, Whitson was offered a prestigious fellowship at the Salk Institute in La Jolla, Calif. “When I called the professor to tell him I received a fellowship from NASA and that I was going to take that job, he told me I was making the biggest mistake of my life. I do regret I don’t remember his name, I would have loved to call him from the International Space Station.”

It still took 10 years of applying before she was accepted into the astronaut training program. “In retrospect, it is much easier to look at those 10 years and think of them as training and exposure to the really unique work I was able to do and learn from. But at the time,” she admitted, “I thought it sucked.”

That decade of struggle, she told the audience, taught her a valuable lesson in embracing and learning from each day. “I know now that I’m a much better astronaut for those things that I learned and experienced,” she said. “All of these experiences growing up in Iowa and being here at Wesleyan were a part of me when I finally flew in space.”

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