No American Has Spent More Time in Space Than Commander Peggy Whitson
Whitson in the ISS cupola. Image: NASA

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No American Has Spent More Time in Space Than Commander Peggy Whitson

In a phone call today with President Trump, he joked about drinking purified urine aboard the space station: “Better you than me.”

NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson has logged more cumulative time in space than any other American, overtaking the previous record-holder, Jeff Williams, at 1:27 AM EDT on Monday, April 24. To mark the occasion, on Monday morning, President Donald Trump, daughter Ivanka Trump, and NASA astronaut Kate Rubins phoned her aboard the ISS.

Whitson, who is the current commander of the International Space Station (ISS), has spent 534 days orbiting our planet (and counting), over the course of three long-duration stays on the ISS.

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In the 20-minute phone call, Whitson said that it was "a huge honor" to become the most experienced American astronaut, and that she was proud to represent "all the folks at NASA who make spaceflight possible [and who make] setting this record feasible."

Phone call between the Oval Office and the ISS. Image: NASA

Whitson, along with newly arrived ISS flight director and fellow NASA astronaut Jack Fischer, then fielded some of the President's questions about space, which ranged from Mars mission timelines (which Trump himself is responsible for setting) to the realities of daily life aboard the station.

Whitson is an astronautical dynamo, who fought for her place in space history despite plenty of discouragement along the way.

Trump joked, "We want to try to [get to Mars] during my first term, so we'll have to speed that up a little bit, okay?"

Her first spaceflight on ISS Expedition 5, launched in June 2002, lasted nearly 185 days. In October 2007, she returned as the commander of Expedition 16, which distinguished her as the station's first female commander.

Whitson rocketed back for the third time in November 2016, and recently took command of the station for the second time, becoming the first woman to run the ISS twice. Whitson has conducted more spacewalks than any woman (eight), with a total extravehicular time of 53 hours. She is on track to complete her ninth spacewalk, accompanied by Fischer, in May.

During his talk with Whitson, which was broadcast live to grade schools across the United States, Trump said that "this is a very special day in the glorious history of American spaceflight" and congratulated Whitson for her achievement "on behalf of our nation, and frankly, on behalf of the world."

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Ivanka Trump called Whitson "an incredible inspiration to us all" and said that "encouraging women and girls to pursue STEM careers is a major priority of [Trump's] administration," citing the recently passed Inspire Women Act.

Whitson celebrating Christmas 2016 in space. Image: NASA

The Trumps, Rubins, Whitson, and Fischer discussed various aspects of daily life on the ISS, including the refiltering of the crew's urine as drinking water.

"It's really not as bad as it sounds," Whitson said.

The President replied, "That's good, I'm glad to hear it, better you than me."

The astronauts also discussed the timeline for NASA's plan to send astronauts to Mars, after the POTUS asked: "What do you see a timing for actually sending humans to Mars? [sic] Is there a schedule? When would you see that happening?"

Whitson reminded him that it would be approximately in the 2030s, "as your bill directed," referring to the Trump administration's budget outline, released in March, which urged that NASA switch its focus to "deep space exploration rather than Earth-centric research," to quote the outline.

Read More: Nothing to See Here: Trump Cuts NASA and NOAA's Eyes on Earth

"We want to try to do it during my first term, or at worst, during my second term, so we'll have to speed that up a little bit, okay?" Trump joked.

By the time Whitson returns to Earth in September 2017, she will have spent a cumulative 650 days in space, about nine months shy of the global record set by Russian cosmonaut Gennady Padalka, who has spent 879 days off-Earth over five missions.

In the meantime, she promised that the ISS crew would do their best to help Trump get to Mars within his presidency, however long that may prove to be.

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