Wire and pliers are handy in space, on the farm
NASA Astronaut Peggy Whitson shares 3 farm lessons
DES MOINES — What’s it like to be in orbit with the International Space Station and take a spacewalk? Stargazing is amazing. Seeing different colored soils on the earth’s farming regions is spectacular. But bringing some practical farm know-how along for the ride is also essential.
“I was lucky to grow up on a farm,” said Dr. Peggy Whitson, an astronaut with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and a southern Iowa native from Beaconsfield (population 32 during Whitson’s youth). “Dad said you could fix almost anything with No. 2 wire and pliers. Guess what? I got to use my ‘wires and pliers’ skills in orbit.”
When she spoke at the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation’s annual meeting in December, Whitson described a time when a panel in a solar array tore in space.
“We had to take the tension off the tear so we could continue (the mission),” said Whitson, as she addressed hundreds of farmers in the ballroom of the Community Choice Credit Union Convention Center in downtown Des Moines. “There’s no Lowe’s store up there, so we had to fix it ourselves with the tools we had.”
The “wires and pliers” solution worked, and that solar array is still in space, producing 97 percent of its power. This example reminded Whitson of the many practical lessons she learned growing up in rural Ringgold County.
“On the farm, you couldn’t always expect someone else to solve a problem when something failed or broke,” said Whitson, who is retiring from her 30-year career with NASA. “You might not have time to go to town to get a replacement part. You have to adapt, just like you do in space.”
Enjoy the ride
Whitson’s unique style of being rooted in the farm while reaching for the stars started at age nine, when she and millions of other Americans turned on the television to see Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin land the Apollo 11 Eagle lunar module on the moon on July 20, 1969.
“Watching them walk on the moon was so impactful for me,” said Whitson, who has participated in 10 spacewalks. “‘Holy cow,’ I thought. ‘What a cool job.'”
Fast forward to 1978. Whitson graduated from high school in Mt. Ayr that year, and Sally Ride became one of the first females selected when NASA recruited women to become astronauts for a spacecraft that had not yet flown: the Space Shuttle.
Inspired by science-related career options, Whitson earned her bachelor’s degree in biology/chemistry from Iowa Wesleyan College in 1981, followed by a doctorate in biochemistry from Rice University in 1985.
After serving as an adjunct assistant professor at Rice University in biochemical and genetic engineering, Whitson joined NASA in 1989 as a research biochemist. By April 1996, she was selected as an astronaut candidate and began training in August 1996.
“Those two years of basic training were challenging,” said Whitson, who studied orbital mechanics and more.
In 2002, Whitson became NASA’s first Space Station science officer. By 2008, she became the first female commander of the International Space Station. Throughout her distinguished career, Whitson completed more than 50 missions and broke many barriers. She claimed the title for most spacewalks for a woman. With a total of 665 days in space, Whitson holds a record — more time living and working in space than any other American or any woman worldwide, plus she places eighth on the all-time space endurance list, according to NASA.
“Set your goals high, but also enjoy the journey of getting there,” she said, who almost single-handedly redefined the role of women in space exploration.
Whitson’s three pieces of farm wisdom
During her NASA career, Whitson contributed to hundreds of experiments in biology, biotechnology, physical science and earth science, along with taking spacewalks to perform maintenance and upgrades to the International Space Station. Through it all, she relied on three key lessons she learned growing up on her family’s Iowa farm, including:
Astronauts have to learn to adapt to a variety of new conditions, including moving their body in zero gravity.
“As a farmer, you have to adapt to new conditions, too, from the weather to other factors,” Whitson said. “Adaptability helped me succeed as an astronaut.”
Farming requires teamwork and collaboration with a variety of trusted partners to get the job done, just like space exploration.
“I’ve served with astronauts from many nations on the International Space Station, which was built by 15 different countries,” Whitson said. “Teamwork is the most enriching part and demonstrates what we’re capable of as a world community.”
Farming demands a strong work ethic and resilience. That includes a willingness to try new things and not give up. Whitson tried growing a variety of crops in space, from lettuce to soybeans.
“I remember Dad got a new six-row combine in 2002 when I was in orbit growing soybeans,” Whitson said. “I’d tell Dad how my crop was doing and ask how his soybean crop was doing.” Whitson’s soybeans were grown in a container that included a sophisticated filtration system. This filtration technology has been adapted for use in surgical rooms across the country to help remove fungi and other harmful microorganisms and debris, she noted.
This kind of home-grown farm wisdom helped Whitson not only succeed in her career, but earn many state, national and international honors, as well. In 2010, she received the First Lady of Iowa Award presented by the Iowa High School Girls’ Athletic Union. She was inducted into the Iowa Aviation Hall of Fame in 2011. She was also named to Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People list in 2018.
In a 2018 post on the social media site Twitter, Whitson said being a NASA astronaut was a lifelong dream and her greatest honor. “Thank you to the #NASAVillage and all who have supported me along the way. As I reminisce on my many treasured memories, it’s safe to say my journey at NASA has been out of this world!”
When she visited Des Moines in December and reflected on her NASA career, she spoke like a farmer as she described Earth’s natural resources, from soil to water.
“We learn a lot about ecology by living in space and trying to recreate an environment where we can survive. Trust me, what we have here on Earth is a good thing, and we need to take care of it,” she said.