Retired ISS commander Peggy Whitson talks recent Axiom mission, making space accessible - Stockxpo - Grow more with Investors, Traders, Analyst and Research

Retired ISS commander Peggy Whitson talks recent Axiom mission, making space accessible

Peggy Whitson is America’s most experienced astronaut, having spent 675 days in space. She’s just returned from her fourth flight to orbit. 

Axiom Space recently completed its second human spaceflight mission traveling to and from the International Space Station via a SpaceX Dragon Capsule. Whitson, now Axiom’s director of human spaceflight, served as Ax-2’s mission commander. 

CNBC’s “Manifest Space” podcast sat down with the retired NASA astronaut to discuss her return to space, the commercialization of human spaceflight and her outlook on the private space economy.  

The following has been edited for length and clarity.

Follow and listen to CNBC’s “Manifest Space” podcast, hosted by Morgan Brennan, wherever you get your podcasts.

Let’s talk about the mission, what you accomplished, and what it was like to do this as a private astronaut? 

Of course, I’d love to go into space. It’s like my second home. I wanted to go but being a part of this changing era of space is really exciting to me. And that’s what made this flight special for me. And I like to think of it as we are changing the evolution of the idea that humanity belongs in space. And, and we have a purpose to be there. So that’s, to me, that’s changing a bit from where I’ve come from in the past.  

You’re back at the space station, you’re somebody who’s commanded the space station, you’ve been there multiple times before. What was that like to return as, for lack of better terms, a visitor? 

It was a different perspective for me. I did have the unique experience though. This was the first time I commanded the launching vehicle. So that was a novel part of the experience. And a part of being a NASA astronaut, I had many experiences where we trade responsibilities in command. And so this was just another aspect of that. The station commander had the lead there on the station and on the Dragon, I had the lead. So it’s just an interesting shifting roles and responsibilities depending on where you are. But it was great to be back up there and see the place. Some things were in the same place as they were when I left. … Even some of the bags were labeled by my handwriting.

You’ve ridden on multiple spacecraft and rockets now. What was it like to work with SpaceX? And what was it like to fly in Dragon and be launched from a Falcon 9 versus Soyuz or versus Space Shuttle? 

On the Dragon, I loved the crew interfaces and displays because they integrated data and procedures together and it just made it very easy for my user perspective to really know what was going on, what was happening, and to stay in tune with the vehicle. So it was very exciting. The landing on water was definitely better than landing on the ground. A lot less rolling around.  

How quickly do you think human spaceflight becomes more common, more commercial, and more accessible? 

I think access is going to increase for lots of countries and individuals. But I also think, as we begin developing the commercial aspects of the station, it will also bring in other companies who want to develop products, for instance, pharmaceuticals or other things, onboard a commercial space station, and so I’m excited about that future. Because of Axiom — and NASA’s design to have our station initially joined to the ISS and then constructed from there and depart before the ISS is deorbited in 2030 — [that] allows us an opportunity to have a really good proving ground and to open up that access a little bit earlier.  

Will you be doing more of these spaceflights? 

Oh, I certainly hope so. 

How involved are you in input around the development of these commercial space stations? Or in terms of training around future teams that are going to go on these missions? What does your day-to-day look like working with this space startup? 

One of the most fun things for me is talking to these young, innovative engineers. We have a really cool mix of people who’ve worked on this station and … know what things not to do again. [They have] these new, new innovative ideas coming out, and I get to talk to these young people and say, ‘OK, that’s a good idea, that that one will work in space. This one, you’re gonna have to work on that because it’s just not practical in space for this reason, that reason.’ I get to use my experience to help them design and fine-tune without having to do all the research on their own. It is exciting for me. Also, one of the things that I like to do and one of the things I developed while working at NASA was expeditionary crew skills. So, the soft skills that are used by crew members and interacting with each other. Like teamwork, leadership, followership, self-care, team care, those things are all important aspects of the mission, especially when you’re living in a small, confined space or, you know, away from your families, etc.

Your career has been incredible. Did you always think you’d be an astronaut?  

Well, it was kind of a long path for me. I was 9 years old when Neil Armstrong took his first step on the moon and you know, even at 9 I felt that was very inspirational. And that’s why I hope we are inspiring those young minds that same age, because for me, it’s stuck. And although I was a farm kid and a farm girl, I didn’t really know if that would ever be an option for me. But that’s what my dream was. And it wasn’t until I graduated high school and NASA selected the first female astronauts that I really felt like, hey, this, this is possible, I can do this. And two of the astronauts had medical degrees and another had a biochemistry degree. And I was very interested in biochemistry myself. And so I thought this might really be able to be possible. Luckily, I had no idea how hard it [would] be. But I set my path, I got an undergraduate and graduate degrees and started working at NASA. Of course, as soon as I got my graduate degree, I applied to work to be an astronaut. For 10 years I applied and was rejected. And I always like to tell young people that sometimes your path isn’t always a straight line to getting to your goal. During those 10 years, I can look back now and say that those were the 10 years that enabled me to get the training I needed to be selected as the first female commander, and to be selected as the first female and non-military chief of the astronaut office. It was those 10 years that enabled that. And so, in the end, I got even more than what I ever dreamed of. 

What’s the coolest thing about being in space? Is it a spacewalk? 

Definitely the coolest task in space is going on a spacewalks. It’s you’re out in the spacesuit, it’s basically a little spaceship built for one. That was pretty amazing. I was on a spacewalk. It was my first one in the U.S. suit. I had done one EVA [extravehicular activity] in the Russian suit on my first flight. But on my second flight, I did a spacewalk. And I had pulled out a box — it was a baseband signal processor, but it needed to be changed out, and I pulled it out. And then at the back of that was a reflective thermal insulation thing, but it was like mirror reflective. And I saw myself in a spacesuit. And I saw solar arrays and the earth behind me and I’m like, I’m an “astronaut!” It was very special. 

When you do another spaceflight, what is your dream crew? Are there certain people that you would love to travel with to space? Could be anybody. 

I think, you know, flying up with three rookies was a lot of fun, because it allowed me to re-experience the first time again. I would pick anybody that wanted to be part of a team, because to me that’s what makes the crews special is the people trying to be part of a team. And so I would want people that wanted to make and build that. 

“Manifest Space,” hosted by CNBC’s Morgan Brennan, focuses on the billionaires and brains behind the ever-expanding opportunities beyond our atmosphere. Brennan holds conversations with the mega moguls, industry leaders and startups in today’s satellite, space and defense industries. In “Manifest Space,” sit back, relax and prepare for liftoff.


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