Peggy Whitson, Chocolate Candies and Mars


Peggy Whitson in the ISS cupola on her 638th day in space.

Peggy Whitson returned to Earth Sunday.

I’ll always have a special place in my heart for Peggy. My first day at Marshall Space Flight Center, 15 years ago last month, Peggy Whitson was in space; the only American astronaut aboard the International Space Station when I began working at NASA.

That was on Expedition 5, the fifth crew of the space station. (This weekend marked the beginning of Expedition 53.) The space station was a whole lot younger then; long-duration spaceflight, at least for NASA, a whole lot newer.

After that mission, Peggy came to Marshall on a tour of the NASA centers to share her experiences with the workforce, along with the STS-113 space shuttle crew that had brought her home. The significance of long-duration missions was really driven home for me during that visit, in the most seemingly trivial of ways.

Among the shuttle crew was astronaut Paul Lockhart, who had the unusual distinction of having been part of both the crew that delivered Peggy to the space station and the crew that brought her home five months later. Normally, an astronaut wouldn’t fly two shuttle flights so close together, but the STS-113 crew ended up needing to call in a backup member, and Paul was tapped to fly.

He and Peggy were both rookies on STS-111, and he talked about how gawky they were in microgravity compared to the veteran astronauts. Peggy was allegedly close to utterly graceless as she floated in orbit for the first time.

When he went back to the station on his second flight, he was more experienced, and moving more easily through the spacecraft. When they got to the space station, Peggy was in another class altogether; not only more graceful than when they dropped her off, but more efficient than any of the astronauts, no matter how many times they’d flown.

This was driven home during the crew’s video of their mission, in a relatively minor way. The astronauts, as astronauts are wont to do, were eating some candy-coated chocolates of a totally non-brand-specific origin. I’d seen footage before of this, and it usually involved astronauts floating through a cloud of the candies, Pac-Manning them into their mouth as they floated, catching what they could. Peggy, however, did not. Peggy reached out into the cloud, and, with a fingertip, began pinging them into her mouth with impressive speed and complete accuracy. Orbital Pac-Man had gone the way of the dinosaurs.

I had the opportunity to experience weightlessness myself five years later, and was provided with some candy-coated chocolates of my own. I decided I was going to Peggy Whitson them. I was wrong. I tried. I failed. Now, granted, I was bad at microgravity in general, but my first effort, from a foot or two away, missed completely. I tried moving it closer. From mere inches, I finally made it to my mouth, the candy bouncing off my teeth before floating away. It was hard. It was hard, and in less than five months in space, Peggy could do it perfectly.

Peggy returned to Earth this weekend with more total time in space than any American astronaut. 665 days, almost 22 months. The better part of two years in space.

Pinging candy-coated chocolates into your mouth in microgravity is hard. But there are tasks that will be required of the first astronauts to sail between the planets, to visit other worlds, that will be far harder. It’s exciting that we are now in a time when astronauts like Peggy Whitson are gaining the experience, and the knowledge, we will need to make those things happen.

Welcome back, Peggy, and thank you.

A Voyage to the Moon


From a Plinky prompt — “If you were offered a free trip to the moon, would you go? Why or why not?”

Puerto Madero and the Moon

One-way, or round trip? That might make a difference. Maybe.

My answer to this pretty much always would have been “yes” — the novelty of being one of the only people to have been there, the excitement of exploring somewhere new and unlike anywhere I’ve ever been, the awe of seeing first-hand the terrible beauty of the “magnificent desolation,” the experience of actually BEING THERE.

And all of that was without any actual experience. If you’ve never really felt the one-sixth gravity of the surface of the moon, trust me, it’d be worth the trip.

I had the opportunity to go on a Zero-G reduced gravity flight a while back. The plane goes up into a huge arc, and then back down, and then back UP and then back DOWN. Inside the plane, you don’t really feel the up and down. What you do feel is that, as you go over the hill, for about half a minute, gravity goes away. It’s a rather interesting experience.

On my flight, we got about 15 weightless parabolas, spent floating in mid-air. Rather fun, to be honest. We also got two arcs at one-third G, the gravity that you would experience if you were walking on Mars.

And, because the Mythbusters were on our flight filming a segment debunking the conspiracy theory that the moon landings were faked, we got extra parabolas at lunar one-sixth G.

Space exploration is kind of my forte. I’ve studied what it’s like to experience weightlessness, lunar gravity, etc. I’ve talked to people who have experienced both. I was surprised at what a surprise one-sixth G was.

In orbit, you’re weightless. Weightlessness was interesting, but not surprising. I didn’t know exactly what to expect, but upon experiencing it, I had somewhat of a “well, that makes sense” reaction. On Earth, there’s gravity. On the moon, there’s gravity. So the moon should be more like Earth than space, right? I expected something like everyday walking around, but different. It wasn’t what I was expecting at all.

One-sixth G was like being weightless without being untethered from the surface. You could jump high enough that you basically experienced freefall coming back down, but you did always come back down. It was amazing. It was freeing. And, yeah, I would definitely make the trip to experience it for more than half a minute at a time.

Please?

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