Defying Gravity, Part 7

The gURLs who Spacewalk

Spacewalking astronauts are big right now thanks to a certain blockbuster movie full of A-List Hollywood Stars. In preparing for her role in Gravity, actress Sandra Bullock turned to real-life astronaut Cady Coleman for advice about what life in space is really like. But the big screen is obviously nothing like the real thing.

Stepping outside of a spacecraft that is orbiting our planet at speeds of thousands (and thousands) of miles per hour is a frightening prospect. So who are the brave women that have actually performed this heroic work in real life?

To this day, eleven women have made the journey. The seventh was astronaut Peggy Whitson.

In this image from Jan. 30, 2008, Expedition 16 commander Peggy Whitson, the first female commander of the International Space Station, participates in a seven hour, ten minute spacewalk. During the spacewalk, Whitson and astronaut Daniel Tani, flight engineer, replaced a motor at the base of one of the station’s solar wings. Image Credit: NASA
Female commanders greet each other for the first time after Discovery docks with the station. STS-120 Commander Pam Melroy is at left; Expedition 16 Commander Peggy Whitson is at right. Credit: NASA

Peggy Whitson

Biochemist and astronaut Peggy Whitson was at one time the woman with the most experience on EVAs. In all, Whitson completed six spacewalks with a total time of 39 hours and 46 minutes. Her record was later surpassed by astronaut Sunita Williams.  

Whitson spent two six-month stints aboard the ISS. On Expedition 5, she became the first NASA Science Officer, and performed numerous studies in human life sciences and microgravity sciences. Whitson became the first female commander of the International Space Station on Expedition 16, the mission on which she performed five of her six spacewalks. One of her walks was an impressive seven hours and ten minutes. Her missions totaled 377 days in space, the most for any woman.  

From 2009 to 2012, Whitson served as Chief of the Astronaut Corps at NASA. She also acted as commander of the fifth NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations (NEEMO 5) mission.


“I remember my first flight in an airplane after returning to Earth after my last expedition. After the initial shock of realizing how close to the ground I was at 35,000 feet (yikes!) as compared to 200-ish miles that I had become accustomed to, my eyes were constantly drawn to the horizon, searching for the curve that I couldn’t quite see.” – Peggy Whitson, NASA Peggy Whitson’s Journal The Curve of Earth.


In October 2007, Peggy Whitson became the first female commander of the International Space Station. During her six-month command, the Iowa native oversaw the first expansion in more than six years of the station’s living and working space. From NASAtelevision.


Commander Peggy Whitson exercises in the Destiny laboratory on the International Space Station. Image Credit: NASA