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Human Interest

56-Year-Old NASA Astronaut to Become Oldest Woman in Space

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Peggy Whitson has spent most of her life breaking barriers, and her 57th birthday will just be one more.

That’s because Whitson will be celebrating her birthday aboard the International Space Station in February, after becoming the oldest woman in space Thursday when she launched off from Kazakhstan.

This is Whitson’s third time in space, and her second time as commander. She’s a year older than the previous woman who held the record — Barbara Morgan, who nabbed the record when she was 55 in 2007. Whitson is also the first woman to serve as commander of the ISS, and the first and currently only woman to head NASA’s astronaut corps. She’s also the woman who’s currently spent the most time in space, which is actually a bittersweet record: Because of NASA’s limits on lifetime radiation exposure, Whitson had to wait a while between her last mission and this one.

Her lifetime totals are still impressive, though: She’s already spent 377 days in space and performed multiple spacewalks, while her upcoming six-month mission should push her beyond 534 days in space, a U.S. record set in September by 58-year-old astronaut Jeffrey Williams.

She’s hardly resting on her laurels, though. Asked last summer what she was planning going forward, Whitson said, “In terms of goals for NASA before I die, we need to be living on Mars. And I might not live that long, so they better get with it.”

Whitson joins an American and two Russians at the ISS. She’s launching from Kazakhstan with a Russian and a French astronaut.

“It is a great place to work and live, and I feel really lucky that we are going to be with friends while we’re there,” Whitson said Wednesday at the traditional day-before-launch news conference.

“Even if I’m just cleaning the vents in the fans, it all is important.”