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A Record-Breaking Astronaut

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Peggy Whitson's nickname is Space Ninja. She was the first female commander of the International Space Station and has spent more cumulative time spacewalking than any other woman. And by the time her capsule landed on Earth earlier this year, she had spent more time in space than any other American, 665 days off this planet. Peggy Whitson joined us from the Johnson Space Center here in Houston and told us what's most surprising about coming back to Earth.

PEGGY WHITSON: Gravity always sucks. It really, really does...

(LAUGHTER)

WHITSON: It's a big challenge just re-adapting to feeling heavy again, you know? Even my arm feels heavy. My legs feel heavy.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And how does that affect your day-to-day life? Do you walk more slowly? Is it painful?

WHITSON: Well, it's interesting. Even seven days after I returned from spaceflight, they were measuring my muscle strength, and I was pretty close to equivalent to what I was when I launched. That's because we spend about two hours every day exercising. The big part of the adaptation when you get back, though, is all those little muscles, you know, in your knees and your ankles that help you with balance. They've hadn't had to work for, in my case, nine and a half months. And so we do lots of specific reconditioning exercises that try and make them remember how to work.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Do you know what I think I'd miss? Not having things sort of float towards you. (Laughter) That looks like it's kind of fun.

WHITSON: Everything every day here on Earth is based on gravity, and you don't realize it until you don't have it anymore. And it's interesting how your brain adapts to that, but it's funny because your brain still thinks that where my head is is up. I always tell the new guys when they arrive and they lost a tool, the first thing you need to do is, like, turn your body 90 degrees because then you'll see it. And it will have been floating right in front of you, and it's not where gravity would've put it.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Does it take an emotional toll to sort of readjust when you come back?

WHITSON: I find it very difficult. I think, you know, there's - I always call it the post-flight funk, where, you know, I'm just not sure what the objective is now anymore. It's funny because when you have that daily routine of, here's how much I want to try and get done today, it gives you - gives me anyway - a lot of motivation and a lot of direction. And the initial return process feels a little directionless.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You're 57 now, and I read something that you wrote, a note to your younger self. And you wrote these words about being a role model. You said, I'm still struggling with this one, so you need to step up a bit earlier than I have done. What does that mean?

WHITSON: I think it means that I have a hard time recognizing that I really am a role model.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Why is that hard to recognize after all these accomplishments?

WHITSON: I guess it's, you know, I don't see the accomplishments as, you know - I mean, they're all special. They're all unique, but this has always been part of a goal, part of a dream, part of, you know, where I was headed. And so it doesn't feel like it would necessarily be something that would be considered as a role model. I don't know. I think it's, you know, just the lack of accepting it.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Obviously, for young girls like my daughter, looking at someone like you - you are a role model. You're an inspiration. She would love to be an astronaut someday.

WHITSON: Great.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: She talks about it a lot. What advice do you have? I'm going to press you to step up to your role model obligations.

(LAUGHTER)

WHITSON: Sure. A lot of extra hard work has really paid off for me and a lot of determination, you know? Went through 10 years of applications, and I still kept trying. But I think the biggest advice that I could give people is to actually try and live beyond your dreams by pushing yourself, challenging yourself to do things a little bit outside of your comfort zone. I think when you do that, your life can be even more.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Are you going back up?

WHITSON: I don't think that's very likely.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Is it something that you'll miss?

WHITSON: Oh, for sure. Anyone that's ever gone to space is always wanting to go back (laughter). You get addicted to it.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That was astronaut Peggy Whitson. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.