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Main Content

4-H Skills Transform Shy Girl to NASA Commander

By Kelly Sprute


Many kids gaze up into the night’s sky and dream of touching the stars. Peggy Whitson, NASA astronaut and commander of the International Space Station, turned that dream into reality.

Peggy grew up in the small town of Beaconsfield, Iowa, completing standard chores such as mowing the lawn and caring for animals, but never lost her determination to fly and eventually go to outer space.

At age 9, Peggy became involved with the 4-H program. Her brothers and sisters were active with the local Ringgold County 4-H club and it was a natural fit for her.

The program played a key role in helping her develop from a shy girl into an exceptional leader.

“Although I didn’t particularly have a love of chickens, I was able to raise enough to sell,” Peggy says. “That ‘chicken money’ eventually paid for my private pilot’s license.”

4-H is the flagship youth outreach program of the federal land-grant universities’ Cooperative Extension Service, administered by USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA). 4-H provides youth hands-on learning experiences and encourages learning about the world through science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) opportunities.

Traditionally, STEM education focused on agricultural science, electricity, mechanics, entrepreneurship, and natural sciences. Today, 4-H programs include rocketry, robotics, bio-fuels, renewable energy, computer science and environmental sciences.

“In order to find your limits, it is necessary to step beyond your ‘comfort zone,’ and try new and challenging things. It just might inspire you,” she says. “The 4-H program is one way young people can practice expanding their experiences, knowledge and skills.”

Peggy has completed two six-month tours of duty aboard the International Space Station and returned on Nov. 19, 2016 with Expedition 50/51, where she assumed command of the station.

She and her crewmates are performing 250 zero-gravity experiments in areas of biology, earth science, human research, physical sciences, and technology development. She is scheduled to return to earth this spring.

“We will be using ourselves as test subjects to understand how space flight affects the human body,” Peggy says. “We will also look at plant growth and genetic changes, examining how the lack of gravity affects physical phenomena.”

And just like that … A small-town girl is now doing big things. She has a message for today’s youth.

“Where you come from doesn’t have to be limiting; extend yourself and anything is possible,” says this acclaimed space traveler. “I dreamed of becoming an astronaut and achieved that dream.”