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Female astronaut sets NASA record for most days in space

Female astronaut sets NASA record for most days in space

Trump calls International Space Station from Oval Office
Female astronaut sets NASA record for most days in space
NASA astronauts Peggy Whitson and Jack Fischer aboard the International Space Station, via a TV in the Oval Office.
Photographer: Stephen Crowley/The New York Times

The astronaut Peggy Whitson, who early Monday surpassed the 534-day record for most time in space by an American, received a congratulatory call about nine hours later from President Donald Trump and his daughter Ivanka.

Trump called the International Space Station from the Oval Office, congratulated Whitson and urged NASA to go further, even saying — perhaps jokingly — that he would like to send an American to Mars “during my first term or at worst during my second term.”

Whitson had specified that a bill signed by Trump in March authorizing $19.5 billion in funding for NASA directed the agency to send astronauts to the planet during the 2030s. But the president, undeterred, said later in the call that such a mission could take place “a lot sooner than we’re even thinking.”

At 1:27 a.m. Eastern, Whitson, 57, surpassed a record previously held by the astronaut Jeff Williams, who spent 534 cumulative days in space. Her current mission launched in November, and though it originally was scheduled to return home in June, is now scheduled to last until September.

In addition to Ivanka Trump, his eldest daughter and an adviser in the West Wing, Trump was joined on the call by the astronaut Kate Rubins. Aboard the space station, Whitson stood with Col. Jack Fischer, an astronaut who arrived there last week.

“It’s actually a huge honor to break a record like this,” Whitson told the president. “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.”

Ivanka Trump appeared to be on the line to emphasize that Whitson, a biochemist, and Rubins, a biologist who studies cancer, were women who had excelled in math and science.

The president asked several questions about the experiments being conducted on the station, which Fischer called “by far the best example of international cooperation and what we can do when we work together, in the history of humanity.”

Trump said of the astronauts: “You know, I’ve been dealing with politicians so much; I’m so much more impressed with these people. You have no idea.”

At one point, responding to a question about what the astronauts were learning in space, Whitson explained that water was a particularly precious resource on the station.

“We also are cleaning up our urine and making it drinkable, and it’s really not as bad as it sounds,” she said, eliciting a smirk from Trump.

“Well that’s good, I’m glad to hear that,” he responded after a moment. “Better you than me.”

He also asked questions about U.S. entrepreneurship in space and mentioned the potential military application of the work being done on the station.

In March, Whitson broke another record, for most spacewalks by a female astronaut. She is also the first woman to have commanded the space station twice.

NASA’s acting administrator, Robert Lightfoot, congratulated Whitson in a statement released before the call, which was streamed on the space agency’s site and on YouTube.

“This is an inspirational record Peggy is setting today,” he said. “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.”

Whitson, who uses the handle AstroPeggy on her social media accounts, including Twitter and Tumblr, is an Iowa native with a doctorate in biochemistry from Rice University. She joined NASA in 1989 and was selected as a candidate to be an astronaut seven years later. Her first space mission was in 2002.

During the call, answering a question from Ivanka Trump, she said that the Apollo program had originally inspired her to be an astronaut, but that it had not been a goal until around the time the first female astronauts were selected.

“It took me a lot longer to become an astronaut than I ever really wanted it to take,” she said. “But I do think I’m better at my job because of the journey.”

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