After 60-plus years of human spaceflight, our nation is transitioning from a government-run, restricted group of space explorers to a global leader in the commercialization of space. Expanding access to low-Earth orbit for countries, institutions, industries and individuals, and fueling a growing human economy beyond Earth is the next step.
I am excited to find myself at the forefront of this space transformation, as the first woman to command a private mission to the International Space Station.
The transition to a commercialized low-Earth orbit is vital as NASA moves beyond – to the moon and on to Mars. Commercial space companies, such as Axiom Space, will provide access for more individuals and nations to work in microgravity and allow the world to experience how research and innovation can transform life on Earth.
Neil Armstrong's first steps on the moon inspired me to reach for the stars
I am sure the inclusivity of this new chapter in space discovery will inspire others to be curious about science, technology, engineering, the arts and mathematics, as opportunities in these fields will serve an ever-growing role in humanity’s future on and off the planet.
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As a 9-year-old farm kid living in Iowa, I first dreamed of going to space and becoming an explorer when I saw Neil Armstrong take his first steps on the moon. I kept this dream to myself, and it was not until NASA selected the first astronaut class to include women that I felt my dream could become a goal.
There is something powerful about seeing someone who looks like you represent from a position of impact and influence. Diversity of thought and approach strengthens any team. I have been part of out-of-the-box problem solving with some truly diverse thinkers who turned seemingly impossible tasks into fixable solutions.
After I earned my Ph.D. in biochemistry, I applied to NASA’s astronaut training program four times over nine years and was rejected. A decade and my fifth time applying, I finally made it. I never let rejection hold me back. Instead, I used the time to explore opportunities to strengthen my skills and grow.
Funny thing with retrospect, I now know that those years of rejection were the experiences that qualified me to be the first female commander of the International Space Station and chief of NASA’s Astronaut Office.
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The women who inspired my journey as a NASA astronaut
I know every step of my journey as an astronaut was made possible by someone else. Shannon Lucid, a biochemist selected to be a part of NASA’s first astronaut class to include women, turned this farm kid’s dream into reality, later naming me the first science officer on the space station. Another inspiration, Carolyn Huntoon, was the first female director of Johnson Space Center. She opened the door to many challenging opportunities during those 10 years of determination to become an astronaut, which ultimately made me fit for the job.
Among many other female pioneers, these individuals helped establish women’s role in space that set a course for the many achievements made thus far. It is not always easy creating a road for others to walk down, but those who paved the way made it possible for others to follow.
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Growing up, my parents instilled in me that when you put your mind to something and work hard, amazing things can happen. In fact, there is a quote that I love in Richard Bach’s "Illusions": “You are never given a wish without also being given the power to make it true. You may have to work for it however.”
This new chapter in space is offering unique pathways of opportunity for academia, institutions and other nations to make a unique mark on the world. Beyond our planet’s sky, anyone could spur the discovery that reshapes an industry, brings a nation together or benefits humans on Earth.
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Clearing the path to low-Earth orbit for everyone will enable people from different backgrounds and experiences to provide unique perspectives that will drive breakthrough innovations.
That is why I am excited to lead the Axiom Space Ax-2 mission this spring and take with me Rayyanah Barnawi, the first Saudi woman to go to space. Together, we are building history and pushing the boundaries of space exploration like never before.
The power of human spaceflight can motivate generations to learn, discover, innovate and overcome challenges, just like Apollo did for my generation.
During this Women’s History Month, let me thank the female engineers, mathematicians, scientists, teachers and space explorers who inspired hope and boldly fueled the dreams of so many. I am honored to follow in your footsteps, to command a historic mission that inspires people around the world to consider the cosmos through commercially available opportunities.
While I will be the first woman to lead a private space mission, I certainly will not be the last. We will build this human experience together by expanding access to space. New doors to space access are opening … it is time to lead through!
Peggy Whitson is Axiom Space’s director of human spaceflight and will be the first female commander of a private mission to the International Space Station. Follow her on Twitter: @Astro_Peggy
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Axiom ISS mission features 'firsts' for women, widens space access