Astronaut Peggy Whitson returns to Earth after record-breaking spaceflight

Astronaut Peggy Whitson returned to Earth late Saturday, wrapping up a record-breaking flight that catapulted her to first place for U.S. space endurance.

Whitson’s 665 days off the planet — 288 days on this mission alone — exceeds that of any other American and any other woman worldwide.

She checked out of the International Space Station just hours earlier, along with another American and a Russian. Their Soyuz capsule landed in Kazakhstan shortly after sunrise Sunday — Saturday night back in the U.S.

She set multiple other records while in orbit: world’s oldest spacewoman, at age 57, and most experienced female spacewalker, with 10. She also became the first woman to command the space station twice following her launch last November.

Returning cosmonaut Fyodor Yurchikhin logged even more time in space: 673 days over five missions. NASA astronaut Jack Fischer returned after 136 days aloft. The men flew up in April.

It was an emotional farewell for Whitson, Yurchikhin and Fischer. Before retreating into their Soyuz, they embraced the three colleagues they were leaving behind at the 250-mile-high complex. Yurchikhin patted the inside of the station before floating into his Soyuz for the final time.

The station’s newest commander, Randy Bresnik, noted the outpost was losing 1,474 days of spaceflight experience with the departure of Whitson, Yurchikhin and Fischer. Four years and two weeks, he pointed out.

“We are in your debt for the supreme dedication that you guys have to the human mission of exploration,” Bresnik told them on the eve of their departure. He offered up special praise for Whitson — “American space ninja” — and wished them all Godspeed.

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