An astronaut doesn’t scare easily. Yet when I learned that I would partner with Peggy Whitson, the first female chief of the NASA astronaut office, for my inaugural trip to space, I felt an unusual tinge of pressure. I would have to meet a very high professional standard—that’s what her name means in the astronaut community. I could only imagine the challenges she had to overcome, moving from a farm in rural Iowa to academia to the International Space Station, cracking through the glass ceiling with every step.
As we trained together—in a simulator in Russia, out in the wild for a survival exercise, underwater or in a jet—I got to know Peggy up close. She is by far the most hardworking and strong-willed person I’ve ever met. She never accepts limitations. And she’s a genuinely good person: passionate but kind, fearless but gentle, with all the heart you want a leader to have, in order to follow her into battle.
It’s no wonder that Peggy has almost single-handedly redefined the role of women in space exploration. She is now the most successful astronaut in the history of the United States, having spent a record-breaking 665 cumulative days in space and contributing to hundreds of scientific experiments while she was there.
I’m proud to consider Peggy a mentor and friend. And as I watch her legacy unfold, and I see the looks on little girls’ faces when she speaks and the difference in their lives that she’s making, it reminds me that, yes, one can change history and make Earth a better place by going to space, because that’s what Peggy has achieved.
Pesquet is a French aerospace engineer and European Space Agency astronaut