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Oldest Woman In Space Blasts Off For Third Mission

When a Soyuz rocket carried Peggy Whitson and two other astronauts into space on Nov. 18, Whitson became the oldest woman to leave Earth -- but that's only one among many records she's broken in her storied career with NASA.

Whitson, 56, blasted off with Russian cosmonaut Oleg Novitsky and French astronaut Thomas Pesquet, leaving Russia's Baikonur spaceport in Kazakhstan for a six-month mission aboard the International Space Station, BBC reported.

The trip will last less than a day, and the three-person Soyuz crew will join an astronaut and two cosmonauts who are already working aboard the ISS.

Whitson's Twitter feed includes links to the behind-the-scenes work required to send a crew into space, and she generously highlights the work of the technicians and engineers supporting her mission. Several photos she has posted also show how close she's become to Novitsky and Pesquet as they trained together for the mission.

In one, all three spacefarers smile for the cameras at a press conference ahead of the launch, while another shows Pesquet and Novitsky hoisting Whitson up and posing in a hangar in front of the Soyuz.

"Team building skills include supporting one another," Whitson wrote in the accompanying tweet. "A moment of playfulness as we prepare for launch."

But for Whitson, who will celebrate her 57th birthday in space, the fun and games follow a lifetime of hard work. Whitson is a biochemist who worked for NASA's medical science and research teams before she was selected as a candidate for the astronaut program in 1996, according to BBC.

Since then, she's broken a range of records: she's the first woman to travel to space three times, she became the first woman to command the ISS in 2007, she's spent more time in space than any other woman and during her current trip she'll have the distinction of spending more time in space than any other U.S. astronaut.

Jeff Williams, a Wisconsin-born astronaut and former Army officer who has spent 534 days in space, is the record holder. Williams returned to Earth on Sept. 6 after his fourth trip to space.

Whitson acknowledged that much of the press coverage of her latest mission would revolve around her age, and joked about it during a press conference with reporters ahead of take-off.

"All right, yes, I'm old," Whitson said, according to The Associated Press.

But Whitson said her job becomes easier with age and experience, and said she feels most alive when she's in orbit, doing work that will help humanity push further out from Earth and into the wider solar system.

“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 onboard the space station,” Whitson said in an interview during the summer, per The Washington Post.

Missing her husband, family and friends is a challenge, she said, but so is eating "space food." This time around, however, there will be more variety, with Michelin-starred chefs Alain Ducasse and Thierry Marx providing special meals for the astronauts, AFP reports. The menu will include foie gras, duck breast confit, and Pesquet will be the in-house cook for the space feasts.

Whitson follows in the footsteps of other female space pioneers, including Valentina Tereshkova, a retired cosmonaut who became the first woman in space when she took off in the Vostok 6 mission in 1963, according to

Whitson said she doesn't know what's next for her, but told AP that the Red Planet is the next frontier she's been dreaming of.

“In terms of goals for NASA before I die, we need to be living on Mars," she said. "And I might not live that long, so they better get with it!”

Sources: BBC (2), Agence France Press via, Associated Press, Peggy Whitson/Twitter, The Washington Post, / Photo credit: NASA via Peggy Whitson/Twitter

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