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Out of this world

IW alum continues to break records as she becomes oldest woman in space
Nov 18, 2016
Photo by: Karyn Spory Iowa Wesleyan alum Peggy Whitson officially became the oldest woman in space yesterday as she and two fellow crew members were catapulted into space. The university held a launch party to celebrate the occasion. Above, Whitson’s former professor, Clinton Rila, center, watches the launch as Betty Canby, left, and Dotty Halverson, right, cheer Whitson on


Mt. Pleasant News

Iowa native and Iowa Wesleyan alum Peggy Whitson continued to break records Thursday as she became the oldest woman in space, but for her mentor DP Wilson, she’s still the same girl who was hungry to learn.

“I recruited her,” said Wilson as she waited for Thursday’s launch to get underway. “Peggy said she wanted to be an astronaut and asked what she needed to do.”

Wilson’s answer was simple, take all the science classes she could and get good grades. It wasn’t easy, however. At the time there weren’t any women astronauts and Wilson said her mentee heard the word “no” a lot.

“I said, ‘go for it’ and look what she’s done,” said Wilson.

Whitson, who will turn 57 during the expedition, is the oldest woman in space. In 2007 she became the first woman to command the International Space Station and holds the record for longest time spent in space by a woman.

Throughout the years, Whitson and Wilson have stayed close. Whitson invited Wilson and her husband to Florida for her first launch.

“I keep telling her she can’t keep going from Russia, I can’t get there,” she said with an ornery smile on her face. “Besides, I’m pretty small, she could just take me along.”

Whitson’s alma mater held a launch viewing party at Chadwick Library. Joining Whitson’s mentor was another former professor, Clinton Rila. “She wound up in my classes,” he said.

Rila recalled Whitson as a good student with an insatiable drive. “She wanted to be an astronaut while she was still in high school.”

Rila said it was wonderful to be able to see his student achieve such success.

“We are celebrating her, what she’s done for NASA and what she’s done for women,” said IW’s VP of Strategic Initiatives Meg Richtman. “Not many people realize the history we have at this institution. We have an astronaut who graduated from here; who walked these halls. I think it’s important that we celebrate that part of us. This woman, who is representing the entire country is one of us.”

Richtman said one of the things she appreciates most about Whitson is that no matter how many records she breaks or trips into space she makes, she is still a Tiger at heart.

Richtman recently went to Texas to visit with Whitson and one of the things she brought up was her love for Iowa Wesleyan. “One thing she said was to tell the students to follow their dreams. Tell them they can accomplish anything,” she recalled. “Iowa Wesleyan gave her the education she needed, which was creative thinking and working hard. She was surrounded by all these faculty (members) who cared more about her than what she realized and saw the potential in her that nobody saw.”

She continued, “Had she (not) had people that gave her that confidence, she may have not taken that next journey because she was told no over and over and over.”

Anyone in Chadwick Library could feel the excitement pulsating though the room as conversation hushed and the rockets began to flare. As the clock struck 2:20 p.m., the crowd let out a whoop as Whitson was launched into space once again.

“I remember when man walked on the moon, this is kind of reminiscent of childhood,” said Dianna Burden. “It’s exciting to see someone getting to do what you as a child wanted to do.”

Burden said she met Whitson several years ago when she gave a commencement speech at the university. “She is someone that represents us all over the world, not just Iowa.”

Burden thought the launch party was a great way to show students that no matter where you came from you can achieve great things.

“This institution has repeated itself over and over again as an institution that has done a wonderful job in educating women. She’s just one of many,” said Richtman.

Whitman and her two counterparts, Russian cosmonaut Oleg Novitskiy and Frenchman Thomas Pesquet, are expected to stay in the International Space Station until May 2017 as they carry out a range of scientific investigations.


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