Record-breaking astronaut Peggy Whitson was in Iowa last week to speak to classes and to headline a gala for the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs. I interviewed her briefly at the Iowa Historical Building, near a display containing one of her International Space Station flight suits. 

Rather than spend much time asking her how long it takes her to regain her walking ability after a long trip to space (she stood after an hour back on Earth the last time, but “puking was involved”), or her feelings about the forces of nature (“Gravity sucks”), I asked for her thoughts on the state of STEM education, meaning science, technology, engineering and math. She’s spoken widely about STEM, and the need for female role models in science, like the late astronaut Sally Ride. 

“I think probably the biggest indication of STEM change during the course of my career is that when I graduated from high school was the first year that they picked female astronauts,” said Whitson, who grew up on a farm near Beaconsfield. That was 1978. "Over the course of time, we now have 25 or 30 percent of the astronaut corps is female at NASA. When I first started working at NASA, I was fortunate enough to have some female role models who were my mentors and helped me get started. It was fantastic.”

“It is important for young people to be exposed to different careers and different options,” Whitson said. “It’s especially important for ladies to see, yes, it isn’t just men doing these jobs. They might be told it’s all men.

“I had a friend of mine tell me that their 3-year-old girl came home one day and said, ‘My friend told me I can’t be an astronaut because I’m not a guy.’ This was a month or two ago, since I’ve been home. Little kids are saying that. Where are they getting that impression? We need to try to change those impressions and make sure we’re telling our young children and the young people who are growing up that, yeah, there are options out there for women, and it’s not just guys who do these jobs.

“We need to really make sure they know that it can be a fun and satisfying career, and that it’s possible for them to choose it. I had female role models as I went along in college and graduate school.

"When I first got to NASA it was very important for me to see successful women in leadership roles. We need to make sure our young people are exposed to different options and to see that women are doing these jobs, too." 

Those women had diverse backgrounds.

“The early women picked to be astronauts included, of course, Sally Ride, but also Shannon Lucid, who was a biochemist," Whitson said. "That was my area of expertise and interest. So it made it more realistic to be to see that, hey, someone who is interested in what I am doing is successful in a career as an astronaut.”

Whitson plans to do her part to boost the number of women at NASA, where the overall mix is close to one-third women. “We need more, and the only way to do that is to have qualified female scientists and engineers and aviators. My second flight, I had a female flight director and female leads in many areas, so that was great.”

Determination helps.

“It’s important to set goals and go out there and try to achieve them," Whitson said. "For me, it required many years of rejection. I was applying to be an astronaut for 10 years before I was accepted. There were thousands of applicants for each position. It was extremely competitive.”

Whitson has spent more time (665 days, 22 hours, 22 minutes) in space than any other U.S. astronaut, and holds the world record for female astronauts. She has worked three missions on the space station, commanding two. She was the first female commander on the station.