Axiom Mission 2 specialist Rayyanah Barnawi, of Saudi Arabia (L), and commander and former NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson, of the United States, make a heart shape with their hands to family members, as they arrive at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida on May 21, 2023.
Greg Newton | AFP | Getty Images
Peggy Whitson is America’s most experienced astronaut, having spent 675 days in space. She has just returned from her fourth orbital flight.
Axiom Space recently completed its second human spaceflight mission traveling to and from the International Space Station via a SpaceX Dragon Capsule. Whitson, now Axiom’s director of human spaceflight, served as Axiom-2’s mission commander.
CNBC’s “Manifest Space” podcast sat down with the retired NASA astronaut to discuss his return to space, the commercialization of human spaceflight, and his vision for the private space economy.
The following has been edited for length and clarity.
Let’s talk about the mission, what did you accomplish and what was it like doing it as a private astronaut?
Sure, I’d like to go to space. It’s like my second home. I wanted to go there, but being a part of this changing era of space is really exciting for me. And that’s what made this flight special for me. And I like to think that as we are changing the evolution of the idea that humanity belongs in space. And, and we have a purpose for being there. So that’s, for me, it’s kind of changing where I’ve come from in the past.
You’ve returned to the space station, you’re someone who commanded the space station, you’ve been there several times before. What was it like to return as a visitor, for lack of better conditions?
It was a different perspective for me. I had the only experience though. This was my first time commanding the launch vehicle. So that was a new part of the experience. And part of being a NASA astronaut, I’ve had a lot of experiences where we swap responsibilities at the command. And so this was just another aspect of that. The station commander had command there on the station and the Dragon, I had command. So it’s just an interesting shift of roles and responsibilities depending on where you are. But it was nice to go back up there and see the place. Some things were in the same place they were when I left. … Even some bags were labeled with my handwriting.
You have traveled on multiple spacecraft and rockets now. What was it like working with SpaceX? And what was it like flying in Dragon and being launched from a Falcon 9 against Soyuz or against Space Shuttle?
On the Dragon, I loved the crew interfaces and displays because they integrated data and procedures together and made it very easy for my user perspective to really know what was going on, what was going on, and stay in tune with the vehicle. So that was very exciting. Landing on water was way better than landing on land. Much less rolling.
How fast do you think human spaceflight will become more common, more commercial, and more affordable?
I think access will increase for many countries and individuals. But I also think that as we start to develop the commercial aspects of the station, we will also bring other companies that want to develop products, like pharmaceuticals or whatever, on board a commercial space station, and so I’m excited about that future. Due to Axiom and NASA’s plan to have our station first join the ISS and then build from there and depart before the ISS is deorbited in 2030 [that] it gives us an opportunity to have a really good testing ground and open that access a little earlier.
Will you be doing more of these space flights?
Oh, sure I hope so.
How involved are you in the development of these commercial space stations? Or in terms of training on future teams going on these missions? What is it like to work with this space startup on a daily basis?
One of the funniest things for me is talking to these young and innovative engineers. We have a really interesting mix of people who have worked on this station and… know what not to do anymore. [They have] these new, new innovative ideas coming out, and I can talk to these young people and say, “OK, that’s a good idea, that’s going to work in space.” This, you’re going to have to work at it because it’s impractical in space for this reason, that reason.’ I can use my experience to help them design and tune without having to do all the research myself. It’s exciting for me. Also, one of the things I like to do and one of the things I developed while working at NASA was expeditionary crew skills. Hence, the soft skills used by crew members and interacting with each other. Like teamwork, leadership, collaboration, self-care, team care, these things are all important aspects of the mission, especially when you live in a small, confined space or, you know, away from the crowds. your families, etc.
Your career has been incredible. Have you always thought you would become an astronaut?
Well, it’s been a long road for me. I was 9 when Neil Armstrong took his first step on the moon and you know, even at 9 I felt he was very inspirational. And that’s why I hope we’re inspiring those young minds of the same age, because for me, that’s stuck. And even though I was a farm boy and a farm girl, I really didn’t know if that was ever going to be an option for me. But this was my dream. And it wasn’t until I graduated high school and NASA selected the first female astronauts that I really felt like, hey, this, this is possible, I can do this. And two of the astronauts had medical degrees and another had a biochemistry degree. And I myself was very interested in biochemistry. And so I thought this might actually be possible. Luckily, I had no idea how difficult it was [would] To be. But I set my own path, got an undergraduate and graduate degree, and started working at NASA. Of course, as soon as I graduated, I applied to work as an astronaut. For 10 years I applied and was rejected. And I always like to tell young people that sometimes your path isn’t always a straight line to your goal. During those 10 years, I can now look back and say that those were the 10 years that allowed me to get the training I needed to be selected as the first woman commander and to be selected as the first woman and non-military leader of the astronaut office. It was those 10 years that allowed it. And so, in the end, I got even more than I ever dreamed of.
What’s the coolest thing about being in space? Is it a spacewalk?
Surely the most interesting task in space is to take a spacewalk. You’re out in the space suit, it’s basically a little spaceship built for one. It was pretty amazing. I was on a space walk. It was my first US dress. I had done an EVA [extravehicular activity] with the Russian suit on my first flight. But on my second flight, I took a spacewalk. And I had pulled out a box it was a baseband signal processor, but it needed to be changed, and I pulled it out. And then there was a reflective heat insulation thing on the back, but it was like a reflective mirror. And I saw myself in a space suit. And I saw the solar panels and the earth behind me and I thought, I’m an “astronaut!” It was very special.
When you take another space flight, who is your dream crew? Are there some people you would like to travel in space with? It could be anyone.
I think, you know, flying with three beginners was a lot of fun, because it allowed me to relive the first time. I would choose anyone who wanted to be part of a team, because to me that’s what makes crews special are people looking to be part of a team. And so I would like people who want to create it and build it.
“Manifest Space,” hosted by CNBC’s Morgan Brennan, focuses on the billionaires and masterminds behind the ever-expanding opportunities beyond our atmosphere.manifest space”,sit back, relax and prepare for take off.
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