September 13, 2023
Peggy A. Whitson
Astronaut and Director of Human Space Flight, Axiom Space
Cristina T. Chaplain
Space and Acquisition Analyst and Writer, SATsnaps.com and Acquinsight.com
Between test rocket launches and new high-resolution images of nebulae, space has been dominating the headlines. With space on the brain, Peggy Whitson, record-breaking astronaut, and director of Human Spaceflight at Axiom Space, spoke at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s 2023 Global Aerospace Summit. She spoke about her experience becoming an astronaut and then her time working with NASA and Axiom Space.
A Strong Education and Hard Work Help Achieve Dreams
Growing up in rural Iowa, Whitson dreamed of becoming an astronaut as she watched the first men walk on the moon, and the first female astronauts were selected the year she graduated from high school. Whitson was immediately drawn to the biochemist Shannon Lucid and decided to pursue an education in life sciences.
"I was very interested in biology and chemistry, ... I thought life sciences would be something that I could do, and so it maintained my interest,” she said. “I always say that was a transition from a dream to a goal.”
But becoming an astronaut wasn’t just about obtaining an education. It required hard work and perseverance.
"I had no idea how hard it would be to become an astronaut. Immediately after I got my Ph. D., I began applying to be an astronaut and was rejected and rejected and rejected and rejected. It was about 10 years before I was lucky enough to get selected as an astronaut,” emphasized Whitson. “I always like to remind young people that your path isn't always a straight line to get to your goal."
For Innovation, Corporations Need to Offer Mentorship Programs
When asked about how to retain students in STEM fields, Whitson stressed the importance of mentorship. She stated that having mentors is an important resource for innovation if we want the next generation to succeed.
"Having mentors and seeing other people doing things you might be interested in is extremely important,” said Whitson. “Encouraging your companies to have mentorship programs with young people is a great thing.”
As someone who grew up in a rural area, Whitson feels as though mentorship at companies like Axiom Space presents opportunities these students may not have had otherwise.
"It just exposes people to new opportunities and ideas, and I think that's the most important thing,” she said. “So many young people are raised, like me, in this very small world, and you have to expand and open their eyes to what's out there."
Collaboration Will Play a Large Role in the Future of Space
Whitson emphasized that the collaborative efforts between NASA, Axiom Space, and other government entities expand not only research and development in space but also in manufacturing.
"Axiom's goal is to expand opportunities in space, not just for countries and organizations, peoples and individuals, but for scientists to get access to space and develop and do more research in space,” she said.
Whitson explained how collaborating on the technologies involved in working and living in space can make it more accessible to anyone.
"It’s an evolving process, but I think space in the future is going to be much more of this collaborative work with different companies doing different aspects of the missions,” she said. “Space is very expensive, but we can make it happen a lot easier if we add in the commercial components where we're trying to reduce costs and get new and innovative ideas going on.”
The Future of Technology Will Be Developed in Space
What gets Whitson excited about the future of space is the development of new technologies.
"It's exciting to me to think about ... that platform as a way to develop new pharmaceuticals, superconductor crystals, whatever it is that we can expand and develop in space,” she said. “We've been working on developing all the new systems that we're going to add in. And it's exciting for me because I get to use some of my expertise of being in space.”
Whitson looks forward to seeing how we can use manufacturing in space to further the technology we have on the ground.
"We need to educate people on what research has shown us over the years during NASA's International Space Station and how we can potentially expand and make it into actual products in space,” she said. “Use that lack of gravity as a tool that you don't have down here.”
From the Series