Astronaut Peggy Whitson returns to Earth with a couple more NASA records in hand

She has spent a total of 665 days in space

(Lily Illustration; Sergei Ilnitsky/AP; iStock)

Adapted from a story by The Washington Post’s Amy B. Wang.

Just after dawn on Sunday, astronaut Peggy Whitson returned to Earth after spending nine and a half months in space.

The Soyuz capsule carrying Whitson, fellow NASA astronaut Jack Fischer and Russian cosmonaut Fyodor Yurchikhin landed safely in the sprawling grasslands of central Kazakhstan. Whitson was given a pair of sunglasses and a bouquet of flowers with a note that read, “Welcome back, Peggy,” the Associated Press reported.

It was a simple message to conclude a mission to the International Space Station that cemented Whitson in the annals of space legends. Her return to Earth this weekend wrapped up 288 days in space, the longest time in orbit in a single spaceflight for a female astronaut. The mission also made her the U.S. astronaut, male or female, with the most cumulative time in space, at 665 days.

Whitson had been scheduled to return to Earth in June, but she decided to extend her time in orbit by an extra three months after a spot on the Soyuz opened up.

While living and working in the world’s only orbiting laboratory, Whitson participated in a lung tissue study and supported research “into the physical changes to astronaut’s eyes caused by prolonged exposure to a microgravity environment,” NASA said. She shared her life in space with followers on Twitter by tweeting about her work, growing cabbage and her two-hour exercise routine.

Whitson has made a large impact on the space program’s scientific research.

“In space she’s able to just work so efficiently that in general we can schedule a lot more activities for her than we normally can for crew members,” Ellen Ochoa, a former astronaut and the current director of the Johnson Space Center, told The Post. “For us to be able to have had her in orbit between nine to 10 months, we just got so much done with her up there.”

She said Whitson’s “tremendous work ethic” showed both in space and on the ground — something that was evident even 20 years ago, when the two first met.

“I learned early on never to follow her in the gym because she can bench-press and legpress maybe like four times what I can,” Ochoa said.

While in orbit, Whitson continued to break records:

  • Whitson has commanded the International Space Station twice, and she is the only female astronaut to do so.
  • In March, Whitson set the record for the female astronaut with the most cumulative spacewalking time: 53 hours and 22 minutes. By the end of her mission, she surpassed her own record, logging 60 hours and 21 minutes of cumulative spacewalking time.
  • At 57, she is the world’s oldest spacewoman.

Whitson, a native of Iowa, earned a doctorate in biochemistry at Rice University in Houston, where she returned after her mission ended earlier this week.