Valentina Vladimirovna Nikolayeva Tereshkova – of the former Soviet Union – was the first woman to travel in space and Sally K. Ride became the first American woman in space. Iowa native Peggy Whitson followed in their footsteps on October 10, 2007, when she became the first female commander of the International Space Station (ISS).
"I guess it is a milestone and I guess I'm just the person that happened to be in the right place at the right time,"1 Whitson told reporters. "I certainly don't want to be the last female commander of the space station, and I don't anticipate that to be the case."2
Born in Mount Ayr, Iowa, but raised in Beaconsfield, Whitson, 48, is no stranger to spaceflight. Armed with a degree in biology and chemistry from Iowa Wesleyan College in Mount Pleasant, Iowa, and a Ph.D. from Rice University in Houston, Texas, she first joined NASA as a research biochemist in 1989. By 1992, she served as the project scientist for the joint Shuttle-Mir program between NASA and Russia's Federal Space Agency. But it wasn't until 1996 that Dr. Whitson finally joined NASA's astronaut corps.
Whitson first visited space in June 2002 when she spent 185 days in orbit during the Expedition 5 station flight. While on board, she was designated the first NASA science officer, and conducted 21 investigations in human life sciences and microgravity sciences, as well as on commercial payloads.
Afterward, she became the deputy chief of the Astronaut Office at the Johnson Space Center. Dr. Whitson was later promoted to chief of the station operations branch of the Astronaut Office.
However, it is her role as the first female commander of the ISS for Expedition 16 that she is most proud, hoping her example will serve to inspire other women to enter the profession. In an interview with the Houston Chronicle, she said: "I would hope we attract more young women into the sciences, mathematics and engineering. I think it's important for young women to be a key part of [space] exploration."3
1Space.com, October 9, 2007
3 Arie Wilson Passwaters, Rice alum named first woman to command space station, Rice University online news publication, July 26, 2007