NASA Astronaut Peggy Whitson Sets US Space Endurance Record, Speaks to President Trump

NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson, currently living and working aboard the International Space Station, broke the record Monday for cumulative time spent in space by a U.S. astronaut – an occasion that was celebrated with a phone call from President Donald Trump, First Daughter Ivanka Trump, and fellow astronaut Kate Rubins. Credits: NASA TV

NASA Astronaut Peggy Whitson set the endurance record for time in space by a U.S, astronaut today, Monday, April 24, during her current stint of living and working aboard the International Space Station (ISS) along with her multinational crew of five astronauts and cosmonauts.

Furthermore Whitson received a long distance phone call of exuberant congratulations from President Donald Trump, First Daughter Ivanka Trump, and fellow astronaut Kate Rubins direct from the Oval Office in the White House to celebrate the momentous occasion.

“This is a very special day in the glorious history of American spaceflight!” said President Trump during the live phone call to the ISS broadcast on NASA TV.

As of today, Whitson exceeded 534 cumulative days in space by an American astronaut, breaking the record held by NASA astronaut Jeff Williams.

“Today Commander Whitson you have broken the record for the most total time spent in space by an American astronaut. 534 days and counting,” elaborated President Trump.

“That’s an incredible record to break. And on behalf of the nation and frankly the world I would like to congratulate you. That is really something!”

“You’re an incredible inspiration to us all.”

Trump noted that thousands of school students were listening in to the live broadcast which also served to promote students to study STEM subjects.

“Peggy is a phenomenal role model for young women, and all Americans, who are exploring or participating in STEM education programs and careers,” said President Trump.

“As I have said many times before, only by enlisting the full potential of women in our society will we be truly able to make America great again. When I signed the INSPIRE Women Act in February, I did so to ensure more women have access to STEM education and careers, and to ensure America continues to benefit from the contributions of trailblazers like Peggy.”

How does it feel to break the endurance record? Trump asked Whitson.

“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,” Whitson replied from orbit to Trump.

“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. And so we actually, physically, have hardware on the ground that’s being built for the SLS rocket that’s going to take us there.”

“It’s a very exciting time, and I’m so proud of the team.”

“We have over 200 investigations ongoing onboard the space station, and I just think that’s a phenomenal part of the day.”

NASA astronaut Jack Fischer is also serving aboard the station on his rookie flight and also took part in the phone call with President Trump.

Whitson is currently serving as Space Station Commander of Expedition 51. She most recently launched to the ISS on Nov 17, 2016 aboard a Russian Soyuz capsule from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, as part of a three person crew.

At the time of her Soyuz launch she had accumulated 377 total days in space.

She holds several other prestigious records as well. Whitson is the first woman to serve twice as space station commander.

Indeed in 2008 Whitson became the first woman ever to command the space station during her prior stay on Expedition 16 a decade ago. Her second stint as station commander began earlier this month on April 9.

Whitson also holds the record for most spacewalks by a female astronaut. Altogether she has accumulated 53 hours and 23 minutes of EVA time over eight spacewalks.

Overall, Expedition 51 involved her third long duration stay aboard the massive orbiting laboratory complex.

Seen here on a spacewalk in March 2017, NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson holds the record for most spacewalks conducted by a female astronaut. Credits: NASA

“This is an inspirational record Peggy is setting today, and she would be the first to tell you this is a record that’s absolutely made to be broken as we advance our knowledge and existence as both Americans and humans,” said NASA acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot, in a statement.

“The cutting-edge research and technology demonstrations on the International Space Station will help us go farther into our solar system and stay there longer, as we explore the mysteries of deep space first-hand. Congratulation to Peggy, and thank you for inspiring not only women, but all Americans to pursue STEM careers and become leaders.”

When she returns to Earth in September she will have accumulated some 666 days in space.

On her 2007 mission aboard the International Space Station, NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson, Expedition 16 commander, worked on the Capillary Flow Experiment (CFE), which observes the flow of fluid, in particular capillary phenomena, in microgravity. Credits: NASA

Trump made note of the science and commercial industrial work being carried out aboard the station.

“Many American entrepreneurs are racing into space. I have many friends that are so excited about space. They want to get involved in space from the standpoint of entrepreneurship and business,” said President Trump.

“And I’m sure that every student watching wants to know, what is next for Americans in space.”

Indeed the private SS John Glenn Cygnus cargo freighter just arrived at the ISS on Saturday, April 22, carrying nearly 4 tons or science experiments, hardware, parts and provisions.

Whitson was one of two ISS astronauts involved in capturing Cygnus with the Canadian built robotic arm for attachment to the stations Unity node.

Trump also mentioned his strong support for sending humans on a mission to Mars in the 2030s and for NASA’s development of the SLS heavy lift rocket and Orion deep space capsule.

“I’m very proud that I just signed a bill committing NASA to the aim of sending America astronauts to Mars. So we’ll do that. I think we’ll do it a lot sooner than we’re even thinking.”

“Well, we want to try and do it during my first term or, at worst, during my second term. So we’ll have to speed that up a little bit, okay?”

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

NASA Stands Ready For Trump Transition Team

For almost a week now, NASA has been preparing for the transition between the Obama administration and that o Donald Trump, the president-elect. Unfortunately, little seems clear at this point, as the Trump campaign has yet to send representatives to speak to them, or give any indication of what the future budget environment might look like.

In lieu of clear statements, speculation has been the norm, and has been based almost entirely on statements made during the election. And with many important missions approaching, NASA has been understandably antsy. Luckily, with the appointment of a Agency Research Team (ART), it appears that the much-needed meeting may be on the way.

This news is certainly a welcome relief in a post-election atmosphere characterized for the most part by uncertainty and ambiguity. And it certainly is good news for NASA administrators, who have been getting increasingly anxious about what the new administration’s policies will mean for their future.

Artist's conception of NASA's Space Launch System with Orion crewed deep space capsule. Credit: NASA
Artist’s conception of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) with the Orion crewed deep space capsule. Credit: NASA

As Greg Williams – the Deputy Associate Administrator for Policy and Plans at NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate – was quoted as saying this past Monday (Nov. 14th):

“The new administration has not yet named its transition team members that interface with NASA, so we don’t yet know who we’ll be talking to. We are prepared to talk with them when they arrive… We hope to be building on the consensus we’ve achieved on the phases of exploration, the progression of human exploration from the ISS all the way to the surface of Mars.”

Once the election wrapped up after Nov. 8th, it was rumored that Mark Albrecht – the former executive secretary of the National Space Council during George H.W. Bush’s presidency – would be leading the NASA transition efforts. However, these rumors were not followed by any formal announcement, and no other individuals were named to the team.

This was certainly disconcerting, since NASA and other large agencies are used to meeting with transitional teams within days of an election. This is seen as essential for ensuring that there is continuity, or that they are apprised of changes long before they take effect. Given the nature of their work, NASA planners need to know in advance what kind of budgets they will have to work with, since it will determine what missions they can do.

NASA's Journey to Mars. NASA is developing the capabilities needed to send humans to an asteroid by 2025 and Mars in the 2030s. Credit: NASA/JPL
NASA’s Journey to Mars. NASA is developing the capabilities needed to send humans to an asteroid by 2025 and Mars in the 2030s. Credit: NASA/JPL

As Williams indicated, NASA is particularly concerned about their “Journey to Mars“, a long-term goal which requires a consistent commitment in terms of financial resources. And while transitional funding was made available for fiscal year 2017 – thanks to the NASA Transition Authorization Act of 2016 – NASA is looking far beyond the coming year.

In the coming years, NASA will need a solid commitment from the Trump presidency to ensure the completion and testing of the Space Launch System (SLS) – the successor to the Space Shuttle Program. They also require a multi-billion dollar commitment to continue testing the Orion Multipurpose Crew Vehicle, not to mention the several crewed missions they hope to conduct using both.

Another thing that is central to mounting a crewed mission to Mars in the 2030s are the ongoing studies aboard the ISS. In particular, NASA hopes to use long-duration stays aboard the station to determine the risks to astronaut health. A crewed mission to Mars will spend several months in space, during which time they will be living in zero-gravity conditions and exposed to a great deal of radiation.

In addition, NASA hopes to mount a crewed mission to an asteroid in the coming decade. The plan entails sending a robotic spacecraft to capture and tow a Near-Earth Object (NEO) into lunar orbit – known as the Asteroid Robotic Redirect Missions (ARRM). This is to be followed by a crewed Orion spacecraft being sent to explore the asteroid, which will develop key systems and expertise for the coming mission to Mars.

NASA's new budget could mean the end of their Asteroid Redirect Mission. Image: NASA (Artist's illustration)
NASA’s new budget could mean the end of their Asteroid Redirect Mission. Image: NASA (Artist’s illustration)

Unfortunately, the Transition Authorization Act contained some strongly-worded language about the robotic asteroid mission. Essentially, it was deemed as not falling within the original budget constraints of $1.25 billion (it is now estimated at $1.4 billion). NASA planners were therefore encouraged to find “a more cost effective and scientifically beneficial means to demonstrate the technologies needed for a human mission to Mars.”

As such, NASA is very interested to know if the new administration will make the necessary commitment to fund the ARRM, or if they need to scrub it at this point and go back to the drawing board. One way or another, NASA needs to know what it will be capable of doing in the coming years so that they can develop a plan for what they intend to do.

The current state of uncertainty has been largely attributed to the fact that the Trump campaign engaged in little planning before the election. While various statements were made about the important role NASA plays, nothing concrete was laid out. And Trump even went so far as to say that long-term exploration goals would depend upon the economic climate.

One can only hope that the new Agency Research Team will have an agenda prepared when they meet with NASA administrators. We can also hope that it won’t impede NASA’s more ambitious efforts for the coming years. The agency has made it clear that its plans to explore Mars are in keeping with the goal of remaining the leader in the field of space exploration and research. If they can’t get there in the time period desired, someone else just might!

Further Reading: Space News

Where Will President-Elect Trump Take American Space Endeavours?

With the 2016 election now finished and Donald Trump confirmed as the president-elect of the United States, there are naturally some concerns about what this could means for the future of NASA. Given the administration’s commitment to Earth science, and its plans for crewed missions to near-Earth Orbit and Mars, there is understandably some worry that the budget environment might be changing soon.

At this juncture, it is not quite clear how a Trump presidency will affect NASA’s mandate for space exploration and scientific research. But between statements made by the president-elect in the past, and his stances on issues like climate change, it seems clear that funding for certain types of research could be threatened. But there is also reason to believe that larger exploration programs might be unaffected.

Back in September, the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation passed the NASA Transition Authorization Act of 2016. This bill granted $19.5 billion in funding for NASA for fiscal year 2017, thus ensuring that NASA’s proposed activities would not be affected by the transition in power. Central to this bill was the continued funding of operations that NASA considered to be central to its “Journey to Mars“.

Looking forward, it is unclear how the new administration will affect NASA's plans for space exploration. Credit: NASA/AESP
Looking forward, it is unclear how the new administration will affect NASA’s plans for space exploration. Credit: NASA/AESP

Beyond FY 2017, though, the picture is unclear. When it comes to things like NASA’s Earth Science program, the administration of a president that denies the existence of Climate Change is expected to mean budget cuts. For instance, back in May, Trump laid out his vision for an energy policy. Central to this was a focus on oil, natural gas and coal, the cancellation of the Paris Agreement, and the cessations of all payments to the UN Green Climate Fund.

This could signal a possible reverse of policies initiated by the Obama administration, which increased funding for Earth science research by about 50 percent. And as NASA indicated in a report issued on Nov. 2nd by the Office of the Inspect General – titled “NASA’s Earth Science Mission Portfolio” – this has resulted in some very favorable developments.

Foremost among these has been the increased in the number of products delivered to users by NASA, going from 8.14 million in 2000 to 1.42 billion in 2015. In other words, usage of NASA resources has increased by a factor of 175, and in the space of just 15 years (much of that in the last 8). Another major benefit has been the chance for collaboration and lucrative partnerships. From the report:

“Government agencies, scientists, private entities, and other stakeholders rely on NASA to process raw information received from Earth observation systems into useable data. Moreover, NASA’s Earth observation data is routinely used by government agencies, policy makers, and researchers to expand understanding of the Earth system and to enhance economic competitiveness, protect life and property, and develop policies to help protect the planet. Finally, NASA is working to address suggestions that it use commercially provided data to augment its Earth observation data. However, NASA must reconcile its policy that promotes open sharing of data at minimal cost to users with a commercial business model under which fees may create a barrier to use.”
Much of NASA's research into Climate Change takes place through the Earth Sciences Directorate. Credit: NASA
Much of NASA’s research into Climate Change takes place through the Earth Science division of the Mission Directorate. Credit: NASA

Unfortunately, it has been this same increase in funding that prompted Congressional Republicans, in the name of fiscal responsibility, to demand changes and new standards. These sentiments were voiced back in March of 2015 during NASA’s budget request for 2016. As Senator Ted Cruz – currently one of the Trump campaign’s backers – said at the time:

“We’ve seen a disproportionate increase in the amount of federal funds going to the earth sciences program at the expense of funding for exploration and space operations, planetary sciences, heliophysics, and astrophysics, which I believe are all rooted in exploration and should be central to NASA’s core mission. We need to get back to the hard sciences, to manned space exploration, and to the innovation that has been integral to NASA.

While Trump himself has little to say about space during his long campaign, his team did manage to recruit Robert Walker – a former Republican congressman from Pennsylvania – this past October to draft a policy for them. In an op-ed to SpaceNews in late October, he echoed Cruz’s sentiments about cutting back on Earth sciences to focus on space exploration:

“NASA should be focused primarily on deep space activities rather than Earth-centric work that is better handled by other agencies. Human exploration of our entire solar system by the end of this century should be NASA’s focus and goal. Developing the technologies to meet that goal would severely challenge our present knowledge base, but that should be a reason for exploration and science.”

“It makes little sense for numerous launch vehicles to be developed at taxpayer cost, all with essentially the same technology and payload capacity. Coordinated policy would end such duplication of effort and quickly determine where there are private sector solutions that do not necessarily require government investment.

NASA's Journey to Mars. NASA is developing the capabilities needed to send humans to an asteroid by 2025 and Mars in the 2030s. Credit: NASA/JPL
NASA is developing the capabilities needed to send humans to an asteroid by 2025 and Mars in the 2030s. Credit: NASA/JPL

Next, there is the issue of NASA’s long-term goals, which (as noted) seem more secure for the time being. In May of 2016, Trump was issued the Aerospace America Questionnaire – a series of ten questions issued by NASA to determine the stances of the candidates on space exploration. On the subject of a crewed mission to Mars in the future, Trump’s campaign indicated that things would depend upon the state of the country’s economy:

“A lot of what my administration would recommend depends on our economic state. If we are growing with all of our people employed and our military readiness back to acceptable levels, then we can take a look at the timeline for sending more people into space.

However, they also professed an admiration for NASA and a commitment to its overall goal:

“NASA has been one of the most important agencies in the United States government for most of my lifetime. It should remain so. NASA should focus on stretching the envelope of space exploration for we have so much to discover and to date we have only scratched the surface.”

From all of this, a general picture of what NASA’s budget environment will look like in the near future begins to emerge. In all likelihood, the Earth Science division (and other parts of NASA) are likely to find their budgets being scrutinized based on newly-developed criteria. Essentially, unless it benefits space exploration and research beyond Earth, it’s not likely to see continued funding.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. Credit: NASA
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. Credit: NASA

But regardless of the results of the election, it appears at this juncture that NASA is looking forward with cautious optimism. Addressing the future, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden issued an internal memo on Wednesday, Nov. 9th. Titled “Reaching for New Heights in 2017 and Beyond“, Bolden expressed positive thoughts about the transition of power and what it would mean:

“In times when there has been much news about all the things that divide our nation, there has been noticeable bipartisan support for this work, our work – support that not only reaches across the aisle, but across the public, private, academic and non-profit sectors.

“For this reason, I think we can all be confident that the new Trump Administration and future administrations after that will continue the visionary course on which President Barack Obama has set us, a course that all of you have made possible.”

For NASA’s sake, I hope Bolden’s words prove to be prophetic. For no matter who holds of the office of the President of the United States, the American people – and indeed, all the world’s people – depend upon the continued efforts of NASA. As the leader in space exploration, their presence is essential to humanity’s return to space!

Further Reading: Planetary Society