Peggy Whitson holds the record for most spacewalks by a female. In National Geographic’s One Strange Rock is a ten-part series that looks at astronaut’s as they leave the earth, venturing into space. Whitson features in an episode and I caught up with her to talk about the first time she saw the orbital perspective and filming Darren Aronofsky’s series.
Peggy Whitson spent years at NASA before she would go on to become a record-breaking astronaut. Whitson was the first female commander of the International Space Station (ISS) and holds the record among American astronauts and among women for spending the most time in space, nearly 666 days. In 2002, Whitson made the first of her spacewalks.
This whole show is simply incredible to watch. How did they approach you about it?
It actually came in as another PR request through NASA and through our system. The request was whether or not I could participate and this wanted to do video filming on orbit. NASA was excited to be involved with it and National Geographic does good products and we got involved. Some of the video we did do in space and some was shot at my home in Iowa.
What made you say yes over any other project?
It was sold to me and NASA as a documentary being told from the perspective of astronauts which we thought was the worthy thing to do. We get a ton of requests and we can’t do them all. Their reputation helped sway the decision as to whether it was worthy or not.
I think National Geographic can only truly capture that feeling. Talk about the orbital perspective, do you feel it was captured?
I do think we captured it really well. Some of the videos surprised me. There was one shot of me opening the cupola windows and it was shot from another module. So it was through the glass through the module he was in shooting the video and through my module and I thought it wasn’t going to work, but I was really impressed by the quality of the video.
That was really one of my favorite shots. How did you both get up there with that cameraman?
Paolo Nespoli flew with us at the same time. He had a briefing on how the ground team wanted things shot. He was the cameraman and director. I’d repeat things a few times so he could shot and capture them accurately and get them from different angles. A lot of credit goes to his camerawork.
The red 4k camera and lens were not talking to each other so we re-did some things because it wasn’t always focused.
We spent a few weekends and one evening together and I don’t think he did. If he did, it was without me.
Let’s go back, when did you want to be an astronaut?
I was nine and I saw Neil Armstrong take the first steps on the moon. I thought that was impressive, even at nine-years-old. You want to be lots of things when you’re nine-years-old. My dream solidified when I graduated from high school and that was the year they picked the first group of astronauts that had women in them. Sally Ride was in there and Shannon Lucid too. I was interested in the biological field and I thought if those ladies could do it, so could I.
Luckily, I had no clue how hard it would be and what the odds would be against me.
You talk about the odds. What was that like in NASA and being a female?
When I first started working at NASA, I started working at NASA, it was later that I was assigned to take over the biochemistry labs. That’s what got me in the jobs that got me working in international negotiations for the Shuttle-MIR program with Russia. That got some attention from me. The class I was selected into was one they were planning to fly to the ISS and because I had the previous experience I think that’s what made me stand out in what they were looking for in particular. I had worked at NASA for ten years and had applied for ten years before I was finally selected to be an astronaut.
What was it like seeing the orbital perspective for the first time?
Launching into space and that whole launch experience, you go from zero to 17,500 miles an hour in about 8 and a half minutes, you’re accelerating pretty good at that time frame, the last three minutes you start feeling the g-force of it from the acceleration. It gets up to 3 g-s. I explain it as three dudes sitting on my chest while trying to breathe. When you get into space, you start floating. I had to get up to do some videotaping. I had choreographed the whole thing in my head. I took my gloves off and handed them and they floated away. I took my helmet off and floated up to the flight deck and grabbed the camera. I started to shoot and looked out the window and I’m so distracted by this view of the earth. The clarity, the richness of the colors. I used the analogy, that I had lived my life in a semi-dark room and then someone turned on the lights. That’s what it felt like when I saw the earth from space.
Doing a spacewalk is taking the same analogy and walking out onto a bright sunny street. That much difference in what you sense in terms of color, view, and clarity.
I loved the footage on the ISS and just seeing that. What was it like working with Darren Aronofsky.
I didn’t get to meet him until after the fact. He had told Paolo what he wanted and what he wanted with the imagery and the consistency of the ten. It was Paolo who met him and had the pre-exposure. It’s been a pleasure to get to know him a bit.
Fox Broadcasting will air One Strange Rock on Sundays at 7/6c beginning June 3