By Irene Klotz
(Reuters) – U.S. astronaut Peggy Whitson broke the 534-day U.S. record for cumulative time in space on Monday and marked the occasion by speaking with President Donald Trump about plans for human trips to Mars.
Whitson, 57, turned a zero-gravity summersault during the video call from the International Space Station, where she serves as station commander. She is midway through a planned 9-1/2-month mission.
By the time Whitson returns to Earth on Sept. 3, she will have racked up a career total 666 days in orbit. Only six Russian men have logged more time.
“What an amazing thing you’ve done,” said Trump, speaking from the Oval Office on his first call with an astronaut serving aboard the $100 billion orbital outpost.
“It’s a huge honor to break a record like this,” Whitson said with a beaming smile. “It’s an honor for me, basically, to be representing all the folks at NASA who make this spaceflight possible and who make me setting this record feasible.”
Whitson, a soft-spoken Iowa native, also holds the record for the most time spent spacewalking by a woman. In 2008, she became the first woman to command the space station about 250 miles (400 km) above Earth.
She and newly arrived rookie crewmate Jack Fischer, 43, both spoke with the president, who was joined on the call by his daughter Ivanka Trump and NASA astronaut Kate Rubins.
Trump, who has proposed keeping the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s annual $19.5 billion budget roughly unchanged next fiscal year, asked about plans for human trips to Mars, tentatively to start in the 2030s.
“Well, we want to try to do that during my first term, or at worst during my second term, so we’ll have to speed that up a little bit, OK? ” Trump quipped.
“We’ll do our best,” Whitson said.
Whitson, who holds a doctorate in biochemistry, grew up on a farm and enjoys gardening. She said she was inspired by the U.S. Apollo program that first brought man to the moon, but it was not until later, when the first women become astronauts, that she set her sights on joining them.
She joined the U.S. astronaut corps in 1996, becoming the space station’s first dedicated science officer six years later. Her current and third mission began on Nov. 17, 2016.
While she has surpassed the 534-day career record of U.S. astronaut Jeff Williams, Russian cosmonaut Gennady Padalka is the world record-holder with 878 days in orbit.
A banner flying behind her read: “Congrats Peggy!! New U.S. high-time space ninja.”
(Irene Klotz in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Editing by Letitia Stein and Tom Brown)