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Peggy Whitson, 56, Becomes the Oldest Woman in Space

Astronaut is headed for the International Space Station

NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson became the oldest woman in space on Thursday, adding to her long list of barrier-breaking records. Whitson, 56, rocketed off the planet, headed for the international space station, where she'll celebrate her 57th birthday in February.

That’s a far cry from John Glenn’s space shuttle flight at age 77 and a few years shy of the male runners-up. But it’s enough to beat Barbara Morgan’s record as the world’s oldest spacewoman. Morgan waited so long to fulfill her role as Christa McAuliffe’s teacher-in-space backup that she was 55 when she finally flew in 2007.

Whitson said much of the interest in her is for being “old and experienced.”

“All right, yes, I’m old,” she said in a NASA interview. She noted in a recent series of preflight interviews that it gets easier with age, knowing what to expect on a spaceflight and how to prioritize.

This will be the third space station mission for Whitson, an Iowa-born biochemist, and her second stint as commander.

“I love working at NASA, but the part that has been the most satisfying on a day-to-day basis, hour-to-hour, minute-to-minute, has been working on board the space station,” Whitson told reporters over the summer. “Even if I’m just cleaning the vents in the fans, it all is important.”

Whitson was the first woman to serve as commander of the space station — in 2007, nine years into its lifetime. She also was the first — and so far only — woman to head NASA’s male-dominated astronaut corps. No other woman has spent more time in space.

She’s riding a Soyuz rocket with a Russian cosmonaut, Oleg Novitskiy, 45, and a French newcomer to space, Thomas Pesquet, who’s 38.

The launch is scheduled for 3:20 p.m. ET Thursday, 2:20 a.m. Friday at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

At Wednesday’s press conference, Whitson said that while she’ll miss her friends and family — biochemist husband Clarence Sams also works for NASA — probably the biggest challenge is the lack of variety in space food.

“There will be French food this time,” Pesquet assured her. He and his crewmates will enjoy dishes whipped up in advance by top chefs; Pesquet said he’ll prepare the New Year’s feast.

Whitson already has spent 377 days in space and performed multiple spacewalks. This six-month mission should push her beyond 534 days in space, the U.S. record set in September by 58-year-old astronaut Jeffrey Williams.

Whitson said she’s had a lucky run with few regrets. But she told reporters last summer: “In terms of goals for NASA before I die, we need to be living on Mars. And I might not live that long, so they better get with it!”

—Marcia Dunn, Associated Press