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Astronaut Peggy Whitson unretires for a fourth trip to space

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Sometimes it's hard for trailblazers to stay retired. Ask Tom Brady or Michael Jordan or Peggy Whitson.

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PEGGY WHITSON: Hey, gang. This is Dragon Freedom up here with a new crew on board at orbit.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

At the age of 63, Whitson is commander of the AX-2 Mission for the private company Axiom Space. It launched yesterday afternoon using a SpaceX rocket and capsule. It's now docked at the International Space Station.

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WHITSON: I'm really excited about returning to space but even more excited about welcoming three new astronauts to space.

SHAPIRO: Those three others include an American businessman and two Saudi astronauts. It's their first time in space. For Peggy Whitson, it's her fourth trip. She's done 10 spacewalks. She is known as space ninja.

KELLY: In 2017, she broke the American record for the most cumulative days in space, a total of 665. She spoke to NPR's Weekend Edition that year after landing back on this planet.

WHITSON: Well, gravity always sucks.

KELLY: Yeah, Earth is a big change after being in orbit for the better part of a year.

WHITSON: Part of the adaptation when you get back, though, is all those little muscles, you know, in your knees and your ankles that help you with balance - they hadn't had to work for, in my case, 9 1/2 months. And so we do lots of specific reconditioning exercises that try and make them remember how to work.

SHAPIRO: Whitson was the first female commander of the ISS. When she returned in 2017, she said it was unlikely she would go back, but she admitted she would miss it.

WHITSON: Anyone that's ever gone to space is always wanting to go back. You get addicted to it.

KELLY: She did retire from NASA in 2018, but one more opportunity came in from the private sector. Among the research projects that this Axiom Space crew expects to work on is one involving cancer cells.

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WHITSON: We are looking at how cancer cells are forming and working in space. And this is going to help the scientists learn even more about how that development occurs because in zero gravity, they form more like they do in your body. And so it's a really good model for them to use.

SHAPIRO: In a press conference before launch, Whitson said she'd be traveling with a necklace she wore on her wedding day, as she did on three other spaceflights. She and her crew are expected to stay at the ISS for eight days and return to Earth at the end of the month. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
Alejandra Marquez Janse
Alejandra Marquez Janse is a producer for NPR's evening news program All Things Considered. She was part of a team that traveled to Uvalde, Texas, months after the mass shooting at Robb Elementary to cover its impact on the community. She also helped script and produce NPR's first bilingual special coverage of the State of the Union – broadcast in Spanish and English.