Peggy Whitson, Space Scientist

When astronaut Dr. Peggy Whitson returned from space earlier this year, it was a triumphant conclusion to a lifelong career as a scientist, explorer, and leader. Whitson is a biochemist who became one of the most experienced and distinguished astronauts ever to serve. She’s got more time logged in space than any other American. There’s a reason that she’s been called the Space Ninja.

Education and Early Life

Some people find their vocation late in life, but Peggy Whitson figured it out in her senior year of high school. It was 1979 and NASA had just accepted its first class of female astronauts, including Christa McAuliffe and Judith Resnik who ultimately died aboard the Challenger.

Born on a family farm in Iowa in 1960, Whitson began working on her plan, with the stereotypical Midwestern work ethic seeming to prime her for the hard slog ahead. She earned a BS in Biology/Chemistry, Summa, from Iowa Wesleyan, before earning a Ph.D. in biochemistry from Rice in 1985. A person can write about Whitson blazing through to a doctorate in a single sentence, but the truth is that it’s just a lot of hard work, and that’s one of the aspects of her career that stands out: she worked tirelessly.

Scientist Career

After getting her doctorate, Whitson worked as a research associate at Johnson Space Center as part of a post-doctoral fellowship. She put in a couple of years as a research biochemist, working on biochemical payloads
like the Bone Cell Research Experiment in STS-47, which was run in space by fellow badass Dr. Mae Jamison. Whitson hadn’t given up on her dream of becoming an astronaut herself, and the whole time she worked at Johnson she was applying to NASA. It took ten years and five applications before she made it in.

In the meantime, however, Whitson was given a lot of very cool projects and also began to establish her credentials as a leader, serving as Project Scientist of the Shuttle-Mir Program from 1992 till 1995. For three years she helped lead Medical Sciences Division at Johnson. The two years after that she co-chaired the NASA committee on US-Russian relations. And because she still had more time to crush it, she also worked as an adjunct professor at the University of Texas Medical Branch as well as at Rice.

Then, in April of 1996, she learned that her hard work had paid off and that she had been accepted into astronaut school. Peggy Whitson was going to space.

Ad Astra

It would be eight more years before she made it to space, however. Two years of intense training was followed by ground-based technical duties, including two years spent in Russia in support of NASA crews there. However, in 2002 she got her chance, flying in a Soyuz up to the International Space Station as part of Expedition 5. There she conducted science experiments and helped install new components in the space station, logging 164 days in space.

Back on earth, Whitson continued to kick ass as a scientist, astronaut, and leader. In 2003 she commanded a 10-day underwater mission that helps trains astronauts for extended stays in space, preparing her for her signature accomplishments: two tours where she commanded the ISS.

In 2008 she led Expedition 16, in which three additional modules were added to the ISS. Because of the new construction, and despite her science focus, Whitson became one of NASA’s most prolific spacewalkers, making 10 EVAs in her career — second only to cosmonaut Anatoly Solovyev’s 16 and her cumulative EVA time of 60 hours is third best in the world.

The three years that followed she served as Chief Astronaut, before she returned to space in November 2016 as commander of Expedition 50. Compared to 16 it was much more mellow, albeit with hundreds of biochemistry experiments conducted. In April of 2017, Whitson surpassed the U.S. space endurance record, earning her a call from the President. She ended up with 665 days in space, returning September 2 as a hero.

Dr. Peggy Whitson’s brilliance and tireless drive have earned her innumerable awards and commendations. Her elementary school has a science lab named after her. This year Glamour named her one of their women of the year. She serves as an inspiration to anyone who aspires to a career in science, math, or space exploration: it won’t be easy, and it will take a really long time, but it’s the kind of work that makes the world a distinctly better place.

Photo Credit: NASA

Hacking On Mars In “The Martian”

It’s been 6 years since the hacker’s treat of a book, “The Martian” by Andy Weir, was self-published, and 2 years since the movie came out. We’ve talked about it briefly before, but enough time has passed that we can now write-up the book’s juicier hacks while being careful to not give away any plot spoilers. The book has more hacks than the movie so we’re using the book as the source.

For anyone unfamiliar with the story, Mark Watney is an astronaut who’s left for dead, by himself, on Mars. To survive, he has a habitat designed for six, called the Hab, two rovers, the Mars Descent Vehicle (MDV) they arrived in, and the bottom portion of the Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV), the top portion of which was the rocket that his five crewmates departed in when they left him alone on the inhospitable desert planet. If you haven’t read it yet, it’s easy to finish over a long weekend. Do yourself a favor and pick it up after work today.

Making Water

Watney’s major concern is food. They sent up some potatoes with the mission which will sprout roots from their eyes. To grow potatoes he needs water.

One component of the precious H2O molecule is of course the O, oxygen. The bottom portion of the MAV doesn’t produce oxygen, but it does collect CO2 from the Martian atmosphere and stores it in liquid form. It does this as one step in producing rocket fuel used later to blast off from the surface.

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Hackaday Links: January 17, 2016

The BBC has commissioned a new series of Robot Wars. This is not Battlebots; that show was revived last year, and a second season will air again this summer. Robot Wars is the one with the ‘house’ robots. We would like to take this opportunity to remind the BBC that Robot Wars is neither Scrapheap Challenge nor Junkyard Wars, and by virtue of that fact alone is an inferior show.

[Fran] is a favorite around these parts. She’s taken apart a Saturn V Launch Vehicle Digital Computer, visited the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum warehouse, and is the occasional host of the Dinosaur Den with [Bil Herd]. Now, she’s relaunching her line of guitar pedals. ‘Boutique’ pedals are a weird market, but with the help of a few manufacturers, [Fran] is bringing her Peachfuzz pedal back to life through Kickstarter.

Want to be an astronaut? Here’s the application.

Here’s your monthly, ‘WTF is this thing on eBay’ link. It’s a clamshell/toilet seat iBook (c.2000), loaded up with an Intel i5 Broadwell CPU, 128 GB of Flash storage, 4 GB of RAM, a 12″ 1024×768 LCD, Gigabit Ethernet, WiFi, Bluetooth, and runs OS X El Capitan. I might be mistaken, but it looks like someone took the motherboard out of a 2015 MacBook Air, crammed it into a sixteen year old computer, and put it up on eBay. I’m not saying that’s what it is; this is from China, and there are people over there making new improved motherboards for a Thinkpad x61. Weirder stuff has already happened.

In the last installment of the Travelling Hacker Box, I asked if anyone can receive mail in Antarctica. A person with friends in the British survey team emailed me, but nothing came of that. It’s summer, so if Antarctica is going to happen, it needs to happen soon.

“The Martian” Is A Hacker’s Dream – In Space

You’ve probably seen the ads and heard the buzz about the movie “The Martian”, where a Mars astronaut, Mark Watney, is left on the planet and presumed dead. You may have read our previous article about the eponymous book by Andy Weir. That article wondered if the movie would do justice to the book.

It did.

In summary, Watney survives by creating one glorious, but realistic, hack after another. NASA and the other astronauts support him by coming up with some marvelous hacks along the way. One, encompassing the entire spaceship containing the surviving astronauts, is developed by The_Martian_film_posterthe ship’s Captain, Melissa Lewis. Okay, that one may not be totally realistic but it’s mind blowing.

Reading about the hacks is one thing. Seeing them on the screen adds another dimension. Matt Damon, as Watney, mixing his own waste with water to fertilize potatoes is an image you cannot create in your mind’s eye.

One usual trick Hollywood plays is to switch the actions of minor characters to the major characters. That leaves out the ‘little guy’ in the backroom who frequently has the great idea. Often that’s us. Here they kept the woman who first saw Watney moving equipment on Mars and the astrophysicist who, well, I won’t spoil it, saved the day.

For hackers, this movie should be paired with “Interstellar”, because of their fidelity to science. “The Martian” contains actual NASA technology and plans for Mars missions. “Interstellar”, well, what can you say bad about a movie that originated in the mind of Caltech Theoretical Physicist, Kip Thorne. The science in this movie is so real Thorne wrote an entire book describing it, and managed a few scientific papers based on the research required to accurately present the black hole.

It’s a wondrous trend to see science fiction movies based on real science and not being dumbed down to the point of insult. You know it has to be good if XKCD did a comic. Surprisingly, Hollywood didn’t do a ‘hack’ job on either of these movies.

Movie trailer after the break.

Continue reading ““The Martian” Is A Hacker’s Dream – In Space”

Astronaut Or Astronot: The Final Round Is Over

For the last few months, we’ve been asking the community for their thoughts on what the best projects are in the 2015 Hackaday Prize. We’ve also been giving away some fabulous prizes to people who have voted, and we just wrapped up the last round of voting? Did anyone win? Check out the video below.

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We Just Gave Away $1000 To A Voter

Last week we issued a challenge to everyone on Hackaday: vote in the Hackaday Prize Community Voting, and someone is going to with a $1000 gift card for the Hackaday Store. How is this going to work? I’m going to find a random person on, and if they have voted, they win a thousand dollar gift card. If they have not voted, I pick a random person from the set of people who have voted. Too complex? Here’s the video:

The winner of the $1000 Hackaday Prize gift card is [Nolan Moore]. He voted for the most Amazingly Engineered project, and the bits aligned to award him a great gift for participating. The other guy? The other guy should have voted.


Thought this would stop when we finally gave away a thousand dollar gift card? Nope. Right now there’s a new round of community voting. The theme is ‘Best Documented’. All you have to do is choose the project presented to you that is Best Documented. We’re going to let this round stew for a while but on July 17th, at around 2200 UTC, I’m going pick a random person on If that person has voted, they get a $1000 gift card. The next time I do this, there won’t be a guaranteed winner; we’re only giving out a gift card if the random person selected has voted. There will, like the other rounds of community voting, be a few consolation prizes distributed to people who have voted if no one snatches the big prize.

So what do you have to do for a chance at winning a $1000 gift card? Click here and vote. Do it now.

Astronaut Or Astronot: Vote For The Hackaday Prize!

Just in case we haven’t hammered it into your skull quite yet, we’re having a little contest over on It’s The Hackaday Prize, where everyone on is invited to build something cool for the chance of winning a trip to space and hundreds of other prizes.

We know not everyone has the desire, skills, or the time to build a project, but that doesn’t mean you can’t still contribute. We’re holding a community voting round right now. Each week, we have a new round of community voting with a new theme. This week, we’re asking the community to select the project that is most likely to be widely used. What do you have to do to participate? Just go over to the voting page, and choose between two projects our especially fair voting algorithm pulled from current Hackaday Prize entries. Pick the project that best meets the theme of the week.

Why would anyone want to do this? This Friday, I’ll be taking a look at everyone on, pulling a number out of a hat, and if that person voted in the current round of voting, they win a thousand dollar gift card to the Hackaday store. We’re also giving away Hackaday t-shirts to random people who have voted each week.

The only losing move is not to play, so go over to the voting page and pick the projects that best meet the theme, “most likely to be widely used.”