Categories: Commercial Space

Record-Setting Astronaut Peggy Whitson Will Command Private Space Mission

Astronaut Peggy Whitson already has her name in the history books, but now there’s a new entry to add: first woman named to head up a privately funded space mission.

Whitson was the first woman to command the International Space Station and the oldest woman to fly in space (57, in 2017). She holds the U.S. record for most cumulative time in space (665 days) as well as the world record for most spacewalks by a woman (10).

Her new claim to fame comes courtesy of Texas-based Axiom Space, which announced on May 25 that Whitson will be the commander of the company’s second orbital mission for private astronauts. The mission known as Ax-2 would follow up on Ax-1, due to visit the International Space Station as early as January.

Another spaceflier who retired from NASA, Michael Lopez-Alegria, is commanding Ax-1 — with three Axiom customers flying alongside him. Whitson is serving as the backup commander for Ax-1.

One of Whitson’s crewmates for Ax-2 will be mission pilot John Shoffner, who is an airplane pilot, a champion GT racer and a supporter of life science research who hails from Knoxville, Tenn.

Whitson and Shoffner will test techniques for single-cell genomics in zero-G on the space station, in collaboration with 10x Genomics.

For Whitson, the science is as important as the history.

“I’m thrilled at the opportunity to fly to space again and lead one of the first of these pioneering missions, marking a new era of human spaceflight,” she said in a news release. “But even more than that, I’m eager for the chance on Ax-2 to open space up to the first full generation of private astronauts and directly link John to the research opportunities on the ISS.”

Whitson and Shoffner will go through Axiom Space’s NASA-level astronaut training program.

“In the time we’ve already spent together as crewmates, it’s clear to me that John will be an excellent pilot and researcher,” Whitson said. “It’s a pleasure to take him under my wing.”

John Shoffner is a GT racer and an astronaut-in-waiting. (John Shoffner via Instagram)

Shoffner, 65, said the feeling was mutual. “Growing up, I closely followed every NASA flight of Gemini and Apollo,” he said. “Now to experience NASA-level training teamed with Peggy is an honor. Collaborating with 10x Genomics is the first step to making their single-cell technologies available to researchers in a microgravity environment. I look forward to the process of testing and validating this technology for future groundbreaking work in low Earth orbit.”

DNA sequencing was first done on the space station five years ago, but 10x Genomics’ single-cell technology introduces an added twist.

“The human body is made up of 40 trillion cells, each of which is changing all the time. 10x is focused on looking into single cells, which gives researchers more information about the human body than we had before,” the company explained in an emailed statement.

10x Genomics is looking for ways to apply single-cell genomics to immunology, neuroscience and the study of cancer.

“While we are still in the early stages of what we could do in space, there are projects that could help us understand how cells react in space vs. Earth that could lead to new discoveries,” the company said. “Early studies would probably be looking at RNA expression for areas like osteoporosis to see how bone density is affected by gravity.”

There are still some questions surrounding Whitson’s mission — including the timing of the trip, which will presumably take advantage of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and a Crew Dragon capsule.

NASA is setting up a competitive process for operators who want to fly private astronauts to the space station, on a twice-yearly schedule. Once NASA lays out the process, Axiom Space will put in a proposal and make its case for Ax-2 to fly sooner rather than later.

Another big question has to do with Ax-2’s other crewmates. Last week, Discovery revealed its plans to present a reality-TV contest built around the astronaut training process, with a trip to the space station as the winner’s reward. Discovery said that the show would air next year, and that it expected the trip to be part of the Ax-2 mission.

“I can confirm that Discovery approached Axiom as the mission manager for the winner to fly on an Axiom flight ‘expected to be Ax-2,’” Axiom Space’s communications manager, Beau Holder, said in an email. “I would refer you to Discovery for comment on the specifics of the show. For the time being we will simply say, ‘We look forward to revealing the other two crew members at a later date.’”

Lead image: Astronaut Peggy Whitson spends time in the International Space Station’s Cupola during a 2017 tour of duty. Credit: Peggy Whitson / NASA via Twitter.

Alan Boyle

Science writer Alan Boyle is the creator of Cosmic Log, a veteran of MSNBC.com and NBC News Digital, and the author of "The Case for Pluto." He's based in Seattle, but the cosmos is his home.

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