NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson, who already holds records for cumulative time spent on the International Space Station (ISS) and for commanding it, will remain on board for three additional months beyond her initially scheduled return to Earth.
Now in her third long-term stay on the ISS, Whitson is benefiting from an agreement between NASA and the Russian space agency Roscosmos that temporarily reduces the number of Russian cosmonauts on the space station from three to two.
Having launched on November 17, 2016, Whitson initially planned to return to Earth in June of this year with her fellow Expedition 51 colleagues, Roscosmos’ Oleg Novitsky and the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Thomas Pesquet.
But with two rather than three Russian cosmonauts coming on board for Expedition 52, the ISS would not have had a full crew of six astronauts for a period of three months.
Extending Whitson’s stay for those three months will bring the ISS back to a full crew, meaning science experiments on board will not be delayed by insufficient astronaut time.
As of April 9, she assumes command of the space station, making her the first woman to serve as its commander twice. In 2008, she became the ISS’ first female commander.
“Peggy’s skill and experience make her an incredible asset aboard the space station,” NASA International Space Station Program Manager Kirk Shireman said.
“By extending the stay of one of NASA’s most veteran astronauts, our research, our technology development, our commercial, and our international partner communities will all benefit.”
Whitson had already spent 377 days in space when she launched in November. She is set to break Jeff Wiliams’ record of 534 cumulative days in space by an American astronaut on April 24.
She is also a record holder for the most spacewalks by a woman astronaut.
According to the revised plan, she will return to Earth in September with fellow Expedition 52 members Jack Fischer of NASA and Fyodor Yurchikhin of Roscosmos.
“This is great news. I love being up here,” she stated. “Living and working aboard the space station is where I feel like I make the greatest contribution, so I am constantly trying to squeeze every drop out of my time here. Having three more months to squeeze is just what I would wish for.”