WASHINGTON • A record-shattering Nasa astronaut touched down on Earth yesterday, finishing a 288-day mission that made her the American who has spent the most cumulative amount of time in space.
Dr Peggy Whitson, 57, who is the oldest female astronaut in the history of space exploration, was also the first female International Space Station commander, and holds the record for the most spacewalks (10) by a woman.
She completed a mission at the International Space Station that began in November last year, covering 196.7 million km and 4,623 orbits of Earth.
She and her crew mates, Nasa's Jack Fischer and Russian space agency Roscosmos' Fyodor Yurchikhin, landed in Kazakhstan yesterday morning in a Soyuz MS-04 spacecraft.
Dr Whitson has racked up 665 days in space in her career, more than any other American astronaut.
Only seven Russian men have logged more time, including Mr Gennady Padalka, the world record holder, with 878 days in orbit.
Nasa footage showed Dr Whitson brought out last from the Soyuz capsule before being seated and handed flowers by a member of the crew at the landing site.
"I feel great," the biochemist said during an in-flight interview last Monday. "I love working up here. It is one of the most gratifying jobs I have ever had."
After earning a doctorate in biochemistry in 1985, Dr Whitson worked as a Nasa scientist for seven years before starting as an astronaut in 1997. On this most recent mission, she conducted experiments with human stem cells, blood samples and grew several crops of Chinese cabbage, according to posts on her Facebook page.
"The best part was that, after we harvested for the science, we got to eat the rest," she said of her greens.
In an interview before departing the space station, Dr Whitson said she was looking forward to flush toilets - "Trust me, you don't want to know the details," she quipped - and pizza. "(But) I will miss seeing the enchantingly peaceful limb of our Earth from this vantage point. Until the end of my days, my eyes will search the horizon to see that curve," she said, according to a transcript of the interview.
"I am looking forward to seeing friends and family," Dr Whitson said during another interview.
"But the thing I have been thinking about the most, kind of been fantasising about a little bit, are foods that I want to make, vegetables that I want to saute, things that I have missed up here."
She noted that she was not totally comfortable with the attention she had received for her various records and her status as a role model. "I honestly do think that it is critical that we are continuously breaking records, because that represents us moving forward in exploration," Dr Whitson said.
She said of her plans: "I am not sure what the future holds for me personally, but I envision myself continuing to work on space-flight programmes. My desire to contribute to the space-flight team as we move forward in our exploration of space has only increased over the years."
The astronauts' return comes as the Texas city of Houston, home to Nasa's Johnson Space Centre, has been struggling to get back to normalcy after Hurricane Harvey.
Nasa said: "As a result of... Hurricane Harvey, Nasa is reviewing return plans to Houston of Whitson, Fischer and the science samples landing in the Soyuz spacecraft."
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS