Record Breaking NASA Astronaut Whitson Returns to Earth

Record Breaking NASA Astronaut Whitson Returns to Earth

NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson and crewmates NASA astronaut Jack Fischer and Russian cosmonaut Fyodor Yurchikin returned to Earth this evening Eastern Daylight Time (EDT) on their Soyuz MS-04 spacecraft. Whitson set several records during the mission, her third to the International Space Station (ISS).  

The landing took place in Kazakhstan at 9:21 pm EDT, which was 7:21 am September 3  local time at the landing site.  U.S. astronauts are ferried to and from the ISS on Russian Soyuz spacecraft because the United States has not been able to launch astronauts into space or return them to Earth since 2011 when the space shuttle program was terminated.  Russia launches the Soyuz spacecraft from the Baikonur Cosmodrome, which it has leased from Kazakhstan since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and Kazakhstan gained independence.   The spacecraft land in Kazakhstan’s sparsely occupied steppes.

Whitson was launched to ISS on November 17, 2016 on Soyuz MS-03.  She was in space for 288 days on this mission, giving her a cumulative time in space of 665 days over her three ISS missions, the most for any American astronaut.  Scott Kelly still holds the U.S. record for a continuous mission in space — 340 days. Russian cosmonauts hold the world records for cumulative time in space (Gennady Padalka, 869 days) and continuous time in space (Valeriy Polyakov, 438 days).

NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson after landing in Kazakhstan at the end of her record-breaking mission, September 2, 2017 Eastern Daylight Time. Snip from NASA TV.

Whitson, a biochemist, now has set records for the most spacewalks by a woman (10) and the most time on spacewalks for a woman (60 hours 21 minutes), and is the first woman to command the ISS twice — on her 2007-2008 flight and again on this mission.  At 58, she also is the oldest woman to fly in space.  (John Glenn was the oldest person to fly in space when he made his second spaceflight on the space shuttle in 1998 at the age of 77.)

President Trump and his daughter, Ivanka, called Whitson on April 24 while she was aboard ISS  to congratulate her on her record setting mission.

Russia decided to reduce its ISS crew complement to two instead of three while it awaits the launch of a science module.  The Soyuz spacecraft can accommodate three people.  That meant there was an empty seat on Soyuz MS-04, which sent Fischer and Yurchikhin to ISS on April 20, 2017.  Whitson, who was already aboard the ISS, got the nod to remain in space for several extra months and fill that empty seat for today’s return.  Her Soyuz MS-03 crewmates, Russia’s Oleg Novitsky and the European Space Agency’s (ESA’s) Thomas Pesquet, returned to Earth on June 2, 2017.

Fischer and Yurchikhin each accumulated 136 days in space on this mission.  It was Fischer’s first flight, but Yurchikhin’s fifth.  Yurchikhin now has a total of 673 days in space, eight more than Whitson.

Returning ISS crew members are taken to Karaganda, Kazakhstan after landing.  Ordinarily, a NASA aircraft then flies NASA astronauts back to Houston, TX. However, because of  damage from Hurricane/Tropical Storm Harvey, the NASA aircraft was not able to take off in time to reach Kazakhstan on schedule.

ESA, a partner in the ISS program, stepped up and flew one of its planes from Cologne, Germany to pick up Whitson and Fischer.  They will fly to Cologne where the NASA aircraft, which was able to take off this morning, will meet them.  They will return to Houston tomorrow (Sunday).

Johnson Space Center (JSC) is home to the NASA astronaut corps.  It has been able to maintain critical operations like Mission Control for the ISS, but otherwise has been closed due to the unprecedented flooding from Harvey.  It will reopen on September 5.





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