At 1:27 a.m. EDT on Monday, April 24th, Dr. Peggy Whitson broke the record for the most time spent in space of any American astronaut. Dr. Whitson is accustomed to breaking records– she already held the record for the most spacewalks by an American (eight, with over 53 hours of total time) and was the first female astronaut to command the International Space Station – but this one was particularly special.
Dr. Whitson is currently serving as the Commander aboard the International Space Station (the ISS), where she is on her third extended stay as a member of Expedition 51.
President Donald J. Trump asked White House staff and NASA to set up a live video call from the Oval Office so that he could congratulate her, setting in motion several weeks of preparations.
Last week, while President Trump was visiting Kenosha, Wisconsin, to announce his “Buy American, Hire American” executive order, NASA and White House staff huddled together to discuss the logistical and technological challenges of calling space.
Video teams coordinated the details of connecting the White House with the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, which would play middle man between the space station and the Oval Office. Other staff mapped out the Oval Office layout so that the President could get a better idea of how the event would be staged.
3D mockups of the Oval Office were created to show where video cameras, monitors, and seats would be positioned, and to give the President an idea of what he would see from his position at the Resolute Desk.
Additionally, the Department of Education, led by Secretary Betsy DeVos, worked closely with the White House and NASA to encourage classrooms across the country to tune-in to the historic event. They also made “STEM on Station” educational materials available for voluntary use to further engage students in the classroom. “STEM on Station” is comprised of education activities that follow astronauts as they demonstrate STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) concepts such as Newton’s Laws of Motion, surface tension, and advancements in technology.
One of the challenges of making a call from Earth to space is a concept known as orbital mechanics. As the ISS orbits the Earth at 17,000 miles per hour, there are relatively small windows of time during which a video connection can be made and sustained.
On Monday, the window was 10:00 a.m. until 10:20 a.m., so timing had to be precise.
The President was joined by Ivanka Trump, who has been a leading advocate for women in STEM fields, and NASA Astronaut Kate Rubins. They entered the Oval Office at 9:57 a.m. and took their places behind the Resolute Desk.
At exactly 10:00 a.m., the Johnson Space Center in Houston began the sequence of events that would begin the call
NASA: “White House, this is Mission Control, Houston. Please call Station for a voice check.”
THE PRESIDENT: “Do you hear me?”
COMMANDER WHITSON: “Yes, sir. We have you loud and clear.”
For the next 19 minutes, the President, Ivanka, and Dr. Rubins discussed a wide range of topics with Commander Whitson and her fellow astronaut, Colonel Jack Fischer.
“I want to say it’s very exciting to be here today -- very, very exciting -- and to speak to you live with three brave American astronauts,” the President said. “These are our finest. These are great, great Americans, great people… And this is a very special day in the glorious history of American spaceflight. Today, Commander Whitson, you have broken the record for the most total time spent in space by an American astronaut -- 534 days and counting. That's an incredible record to break. And on behalf of our nation and, frankly, on behalf of the world, I'd like to congratulate you. That is really something. And I'd like to know, how does it feel to have broken such a big and important record?”
“Well, it's actually a huge honor to break a record like this, but it's an honor for me basically to be representing all the folks at NASA who make this spaceflight possible and who make me setting this record feasible,” Commander Whitson replied. “And so it's a very exciting time to be at NASA. We are all very much looking forward, as directed by your new NASA bill -- we're excited about the missions to Mars in the 2030s.”
The President recently signed the Inspiring the Next Space Pioneers, Innovators, Researchers, and Explorers (INSPIRE) Women Act to encourage female participation in STEM fields, with a particular focus on NASA.
“Encouraging women and girls to pursue STEM careers is a major priority for this administration,” Ivanka Trump said during the call on Monday. “And today we are sitting with an amazing example of that -- Dr. Rubins, and you, Dr. Whitson. So I would love to hear from you, what was the impetus for you to get involved in the sciences?”
Dr. Rubins, who was the first person to sequence DNA in space, credited a conference that she attended when she was 15-years-old with piquing her interest in science.
Commander Whitson said she was inspired by NASA’s famed Apollo program. “That was when it became a dream to become an astronaut,” she said. “But I don’t really think it became a goal until I graduated from high school, when the first female astronauts were selected. And seeing those role models, and with the encouragement of my parents and various mentors in college and graduate school… that’s what made it possible.”
Today, Dr. Rubins and Commander Whitson are inspiring a new generation of Americans to look to the stars and, as President Trump said in his recent address to a Joint Session of Congress, realize that “American footsteps on foreign worlds are not too big a dream.”
“I hope that every young American watching today finds, in your example, a reason to love space and think about space,” President Trump said to close out the call. “Many great things are going to come out, tremendous discoveries in medicine and so many other fields. So thank you very much. I want to say God bless you, God bless America. We are very, very proud of you, and very proud of your bravery.”