File-breaking astronaut Peggy Whitson will command the personal house mission

Astronaut Peggy Whitson already has her name in the history books, but now there’s a new entry: The first woman to lead a privately funded space mission.

Whitson was the first woman to command the International Space Station and the oldest woman to fly in space (57, 2017). She holds the US record for the most cumulative time in space (665 days) and the world record for the most space walks by a woman (10).

Her new claim to fame comes from Texas-based Axiom Space, which announced on May 25 that Whitson would be the commander of the company’s second orbital mission for private astronauts. The mission known as Ax-2 would follow Ax-1 as it would visit the International Space Station as early as January.

Another space flier that has retired from NASA, Michael Lopez-Alegria, commands Ax-1 with three Axiom customers flying by his side. Whitson serves as the backup commander for Ax-1.

One of Whitson’s crew members for Ax-2 will be Mission Pilot John Shoffner, an airplane pilot, champion GT racer, and life science research supporter from Knoxville, Tenn.

Whitson and Shoffner, in collaboration with 10x Genomics, will test techniques for single cell genomics in Zero-G on the space station.

Science is as important to Whitson as history.

“I am thrilled to have the opportunity to fly back into space and lead one of the first of these landmark missions that will usher in a new era in human space travel,” she said in a press release. “But beyond that, I’m excited to see the Ax-2’s chance to make room for the first full generation of private astronauts and connect John directly to the research opportunities on the ISS.”

Whitson and Shoffner will be undergoing NASA’s astronaut training program from Axiom Space.

“In the time we’ve spent together as crew members, I know that John will be an excellent pilot and researcher,” said Whitson. “It is my pleasure to take him under my wing.”

John Shoffner is a GT racing driver and a waiting astronaut. (John Shoffner via Instagram)

Shoffner, 65, said the feeling is mutual. “When I was growing up, I closely followed every NASA flight of Gemini and Apollo,” he said. “It is an honor to have NASA-level training with Peggy now. The collaboration with 10x Genomics is the first step in making their single cell technologies available to researchers in a weightless environment. I look forward to testing and validating this technology for future groundbreaking work in near-earth orbit. “

DNA sequencing was first performed on the space station five years ago, but the single cell technology of 10x Genomics brings an additional twist.

“The human body is made up of 40 trillion cells, each of which is constantly changing. 10x focuses on studying individual cells, giving researchers more information about the human body than before, ”the company said in a statement sent via email.

10x Genomics seeks ways to apply single cell genomics to immunology, neuroscience, and cancer research.

“While we are at the early stages of what we could do in space, there are projects that could help us understand how cells in space react against Earth, which could lead to new discoveries,” the company said. “Early studies would likely look at RNA expression in areas like osteoporosis to see how gravity affects bone density.”

There are still a few questions about Whitson’s mission – including when of the trip, which is likely to use a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and Crew Dragon capsule.

NASA is setting up a competition process for operators who want to fly private astronauts to the space station twice a year. Once NASA sets the process, Axiom Space will come up with a proposal and advocate that Ax-2 fly sooner rather than later.

Another big question has to do with the other crew members on Ax-2. Last week, Discovery announced its plans to showcase a reality TV competition centered around the astronaut training process that will reward a trip to the space station. Discovery said the show would air next year and that the trip would be part of the Ax-2 mission.

“I can confirm that Discovery approached Axiom as mission manager for the winner to fly on an Axiom flight that is expected to be Ax-2,” said Beau Holder, communications manager for Axiom Space, in an email. “I would refer you to Discovery for comment on the specifics of the show. For now, we’ll just say, “We look forward to revealing the other two crew members at a later date.”

Main picture: Astronaut Peggy Whitson spends time in the dome of the International Space Station during a business trip in 2017. Photo credit: Peggy Whitson / NASA via Twitter.

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