Space Station Gets Its First Woman Commander

Astronaut Peggy Whitson is first woman in charge of ISS.

— -- Peggy Whitson makes it look so easy. The Iowa farmer's daughter is now the first woman to command the International Space Station, and she says it's really no big deal.

Her colleague, Pam Melroy, who will command the shuttle flight scheduled to head to the space station Tuesday, said Whitson is the perfect person for the job.

"I love Peggy's leadership style," said Melroy. "I think the most important element of her style is her sense of humor, which is really just a sense of perspective. And that is really important because as a leader, one of the most important things you have to keep is the big picture. She is very direct and very kind at the same time."

Peggy Whitson was selected as an astronaut in 1996 and spent 184 days on the space station in 2002, good preparation for her new post. She will oversee the most ambitious phase of construction on the International Space Station.

"It is a technological achievement," she told ABC News before leaving for orbit in a Russian Soyuz spacecraft earlier this month. "The fact that we are putting together these pieces of hardware from all different countries is really and truly almost miraculous."

The 16 countries building the International Space Station have struggled to keep it operational, grappling with computer failures, gyroscope failures and supply issues. But that, said Whitson, is what makes the space station so valuable: learning how to keep such a base operational on orbit.

"We are using this assembly task, this very complicated assembly task in space and difficult environments," she said. "So we can use what we learn to build bases on the moon and on Mars, this is a key stepping stone to getting there."

The view, weightlessness, spacewalks: Six months in space on orbit can be rewarding.

Astronaut Clay Anderson will be returning to Earth on the next shuttle mission; he spoke wistfully about missing his family, and a good steak dinner with a loaded baked potato. He may want a beer, too, but it is politically incorrect for an astronaut to even breathe a word about alcohol these days.

Whitson does have plans for having some fun on the space station. "One of the things I thought was important the last time was movie night, so we would have dinner and a movie," she said. "I would try to come up with something unique like rehydrated hamburgers or create something. The long term advantage is not only camaraderie but keeping everybody happy and upbeat about the mission."

Whitson's job description as commander of the space station fits that of any good manager.

"My first priority is safety of the crew and the vehicle," she said. "We do have a little relaxed atmosphere about getting through the mission because of its long duration. You have to keep a pace that everyone is comfortable with, and so making that all work and keeping everybody happy at the same time is a big challenge."

Astronaut Dan Tani will join Whitson on the space station next week. He has known Peggy Whitson since they were both selected as astronauts in 1996.

"She is a hugger," he said of Whitson. "I love that about her. She hugs everybody when she sees you. She is very friendly, and her house was party central. She threw the best parties, she cooked the best food."

Tani isn't surprised that Whitson was tagged to be the first woman to command the space station. "The amount she knows about the station and its operation blows me away. Her ability, her leadership and management skills always amaze me. I can't wait to get up there and work with her on the station."

Space station commanders have nearly all been male, going back to the earliest American or Soviet stations in the early 1970s. NASA has had only one female commander before -- astronaut Eileen Collins, now retired from the agency, who was in charge of two space shuttle missions.

Whitson said she is little uncomfortable with all the attention placed on her role as the first woman in charge -- she wants the spotlight to shine on the space station. "I think the legacy of the space station will be that it is an international project and that we have built it with 16 different counties in a peaceful way".

So what did Whitson have to leave behind on Earth? Shoes.

Pam Melroy said her colleague is known for having the cutest shoes. Whitson said she wore high heels to work, "and they really don't like me walking in the simulators in high heels."

She does miss what she left behind in her closet at home. "We tend to have blue T-shirts and blue pants and it gets a little old," she said of daily space station attire. "When I came back I said I was never going to wear navy blue again, and here I am."

Back in space, wearing navy blue, flying on the International Space Station. Now, however, she is the boss.