MOUNT AYR, Iowa — You’re all too familiar with the view here on Earth. Sometimes it’s not pretty.
Powerful men in Congress and other institutions are being deposed in what is becoming a historic reckoning for those who perpetuate sexual harassment and assault.
North Korea is test-launching nuclear missiles as President Donald Trump and “Little Rocket Man” Kim Jong-un hurl insults.
As if our personal and political bodies didn’t offer enough conflict, this week’s renewed arguments over ownership of the holy city of Jerusalem once again expose our deep divisions.
So is it any wonder that I was utterly relieved to catch up Thursday with one of the most accomplished Iowans of all time, astronaut and enjoy the broader and perhaps more enlightening view from space?
At the precise moment Thursday that Minnesota’s Sen. Al Franken said he plans to resign his seat in Washington, D.C., astronaut Peggy Whitson was busy at her alma mater inspiring students to challenge themselves and pursue their noblest dreams.
Whitson, 57, returned in September from a 9 month mission aboard the International Space Station where, in her spare time, she and the crew sequenced DNA and worked on a cure for lung cancer.
She looked lean and healthy in a crisp blue flight suit and seemed fully readjusted to life on Earth, while admitting that “gravity really does suck.”
Upon their return, astronauts spend 45 days repeating rigorous and sometimes odd exercises, such as standing on wobbly foam platforms while simultaneously throwing a ball to help retrain their ankles and knees how to maintain balance.
Whitson has racked up an impressive series of records: She has spent more time in space (665 days) than any other American and ranks eighth overall.
She’s the oldest female astronaut. She was America’s first female chief astronaut and the first woman to command the space station twice.
She has taken as many spacewalks (10) as any other American and more than any other woman.
And it all started here in southern rural Iowa, where she “saw more pigs and cows than I ever saw people growing up.”
That’s truer than ever here in a county whose population, businesses and school districts have only dwindled since Whitson was born.
But curiosity still seems in abundant supply in Ringgold County as Whitson, in a presentation to an auditorium full of elementary students followed by a second round for the junior high and high school, blazed through a video slideshow of her recent adventures and answered more than 100 questions.
What’s the coolest thing to see in space? “The Earth is incredibly beautiful.”
Are aliens real? “I never got to see them, but I sure hope so.”
How do you use a bathroom in space? “Suction is everything.”
How do you cook in space? “It’s all about the sauce,” because the monotony of only 16 different ration meals quickly gets dreary.
Have you ever seen the dark side of the moon? (Nope, but Pink Floyd immediately cued up in my head.)
Whitson entertained every question — about drinking urine, enduring space farts, all of it — with gusto and good humor.
When I peppered Whitson with my own more jaded adult questions, she claimed that as a woman and scientist she “didn’t have to break a lot of barriers” thanks to the female role models who preceded her, and the professionalism of her male colleagues.
But she acknowledges that with probably fewer than a third of the space staff made up of women, there’s still more work to be done to ensure her gender has full support to pursue the top STEM careers.
It took a decade of applying to NASA’s astronaut program before Whitson was accepted in 1996. What may have moved the needle for her, on top of her science chops, was her extensive cooperative work with the Russians and other international space colleagues.
Here on Earth, special counsel Robert Mueller continues to probe Trump’s ties to Russia. Meanwhile, Whitson in her last two missions has been launched into space aboard Russian rockets.
That’s quite an illustration of our intertwined worlds of conflict and cooperation.
Whitson got to this point despite one person after another — whether an official at the prestigious Salk Institute in San Diego whose postdoc program she bypassed, or University of Iowa space scientist James A. Van Allen — trying to dissuade her from her astronaut career. She never wavered.
Whitson’s parents, Keith and Beth, also stopped by Thursday. Keith joked about his daughter’s trademark drive and tenacity.
“She was talking about going to Mars,” he said, “and I said I may put my foot down. You may not be able to go.”
This self-described “farm girl” who first sold chickens to be able to pilot an airplane always credits her work ethic, self-reliance and stubbornness cultivated in Iowa as crucial ingredients in her success.
Mount Ayr’s current school superintendent, Joe Drake, was one of her classmates. (He also oversees nearby Bedford, where Whitson spoke Thursday afternoon.)
Whitson graduated from Mount Ayr in 1978, the same year that NASA welcomed its first class of female astronauts. Sally Ride, from Los Angeles, became the household name in 1983 when she was the first woman in space.
But Whitson took special note of Shannon Lucid, who like her was a biochemist.
For now, Whitson will spend the next few months on her post-mission public relations tour, inspiring young women as Lucid inspired her.
She speaks Friday night at the Department of Cultural Affairs’ annual fundraiser, the Celebrate Iowa Gala at the State Historical Building.
Whitson will return to southern Iowa to celebrate Christmas — in contrast to last year, when she was eating floating globs of green Jell-O and competing in a holiday cookie-decorating contest 250 miles above the Earth.
Despite living more than half her life in Texas, in near orbit of the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Whitson still considers Iowa to be her home. She owns a 360-acre farm outside of Beaconsfield, population 15, where her brother tends the land.
She doesn’t know if she’ll ever return to space. But she plans to return to Iowa and retire here — as a sunbird, fleeing to warmer climates in the dead of winter.
It’s not like I can knock Whitson for thin skin; as an experienced spacewalker, she has exposed herself to colder temperatures than all but a handful of other humans.
I didn’t pinpoint an aspiring astronaut in Thursday’s audience. But Abbey Schafer, a senior, plans to be a neurosurgeon.
As a basketball player and cheerleader, she has suffered four concussions in the last three years. She also has watched in sorrow as her 52-year-old grandmother has coped with early-onset Alzheimer’s.
So Schafer intends to study the brain, as much a frontier for exploration as space. She said Whitson’s example of dedicating herself to research and persevering past rejection was the right message for her last year in high school.
“To say that’s eventually going to pay off, that really sticks out for me,” Schafer said.
When asked Thursday which planet was her favorite and why, Whitson gave a lovely answer.
“Earth will have to be my favorite,” she said, “since it’s the only one I really know.”
I hope all the world leaders take that to heart as they scheme, feud and stockpile for war without having benefited from Whitson’s view from space, where she has seen how small and fragile we really are.