Peggy Whitson: Most spacewalks by a female

From Yuri Gagarin to Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, the world’s most famous space voyagers have tended to be men. 

But the achievements of the USA’s Peggy Whitson have gone a long way towards redressing the balance.

This multiple record holder has set the bar high and is a one-woman advert for female space pioneers.

Back to Hall of Fame

Peggy’s first taste of space exploration began at a young age. As a nine-year-old, she watched along with millions of others as Aldrin and Armstrong set foot on the Moon in July 1969. At the time, she’d thought, “‘wow, cool job!’.

“But I think when you’re nine, you want to be lots of things,” she reflected later. “It wasn’t until the time I graduated from high school and they selected the first female astronauts that it went from being a dream to becoming a goal.”

A spark had been ignited, though, one that was further fuelled in 1978 – the year that Peggy graduated from Mount Ayr Community High School – when six women were included in NASA’s annual Astronaut Class. They included Sally Ride, who was to become the first American woman to journey into space. 

“The selection of the 1978 Astronaut Class that included Sally and several other women had a huge impact on my dream to become an astronaut,” Peggy admitted. “The success of those woman, with Sally paving the way, made my dream seem one step closer to becoming a reality.”

Peggy Whitson in 2001. ©NASA

The journey into space

Peggy joined NASA’s Johnson Space Center in 1986 at the age of 26, as a National Research Council Resident Research Associate, working initially on biochemistry research. By April 1996 however, she had impressed her superiors enough to be named as an astronaut candidate herself, commencing training in August of that year. 

It wasn’t until 5 June 2002 that she was to achieve her first spaceflight. That day she set for the International Space Station (ISS) as part of the Expedition 5 crew, arriving on two days leter. Among her duties, Peggy carried out scientific experiments on board and performed her first spacewalk, which lasted 4 hr 25 min. Altogether, she was to spend 184 days 22 hr 14 min in space during her inaugural trip. These were exciting days: as Peggy explained to GWR in July 2017, the ISS was still being assembled at the time.

Her next mission, Expedition 16, commenced on 10 October 2007, and saw her pass a further 191 days 19 hr 8 min in space. It was during this voyage, on 18 December 2007, that NASA’s Mission Control told Peggy that she had now logged more hours in Extravehicular Activity (EVAs - i.e. space walks) than any other female astronaut – and more individual EVAs (five) too. The following year, she became the first woman in history to serve as commander of the International Space Station.

And the records just kept coming. When she launched on Expedition 50/51 from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, at 2:20 a.m. local time on 18 November 2016 (2:20 p.m. on 17 November, Central Standard Time), Peggy became the Oldest female astronaut to fly in space. She was aged 56 years 282 days.

On 30 March 2017, she embarked on another EVA, and in so doing matched fellow American Sunita Williams’s record for the Most accumulated time on spacewalks by a female. By the time the exercise was over, Peggy’s cumulative spacewalk time stood at 53 hr 22 min.

Fast forward to 3 September 2017. By now, Peggy had spent a total of 665 days in space, and carried out ten EVAs with an overall duration of 60 hr 21 min, giving her GWR titles both for Most spacewalks by a female and Most accumulated time on spacewalks by a female.

A chat with an out-of-this-world record-breaker

In July 2017, Guinness World Records caught up with Peggy while she was on board the International Space Station, for a conversation on our Facebook Live channel. It was the first Q&A that we’ve ever carried out with someone in space! 

During a fascinating chat, Peggy paid tribute to mentors and teachers, from college through to graduate school, who had helped inspire her. Now a role model herself, she told us that she hoped to “inspire folks to dream big, to go after your dreams even if they might seem impossible”. 

And – in a statement that pretty much sums up everything that GWR is about – she also provided a valuable piece of advice: “Try and do something more than you might think you’re capable of – because you will surprise yourself.”

The biggest challenge Peggy had to face turned out to have nothing at all to do with science. It was learning the Russian language, in order to be able to communicate effectively with the cosmonauts she worked with in space, and to react to operational procedures and read the displays in Soyuz spacecraft. Hence her description of herself as “Soyuz fluent”!

Peggy’s achieved so much already – so is there anything left on her to-do list? She admits that she would love to set foot on another planet one day. 

She admits though: “I’m afraid that I might be getting a tad old for that! I’m hoping the future will provide folks an opportunity to live and work on Mars and explore space even beyond.”