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Peggy Whitson
At the age of 56, NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson is beginning a months-long tour of duty on the International Space Station. (NASA Photo / Bill Ingalls)

Today’s liftoff of a Soyuz spaceship heading for the International Space Station launched NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson into the history books as well.

The three-time spaceflier, who turns 57 in February, is now the oldest woman to go into space. Whitson took the title from NASA teacher-astronaut Barbara Morgan, who had held the record since her 2007 space shuttle flight (when she was 55).

In a NASA interview conducted last year, Whitson joked that a documentary film crew was following her around mostly because she was “old and experienced.”

“All right, yes, I’m old,” she said.

The Iowa-born Whitson made her first trip to the space station in 2003. She served a second orbital tour of duty in 2008, becoming the station’s first woman commander and building up her total time in space to 377 days. That’s the record for a woman astronaut, and the record will be rising on every day she spends in orbit from now on.

This time around, Whitson lifted off with Russian cosmonaut Oleg Novitskiy and French astronaut Thomas Pesquet. Their Soyuz craft rose from Russia’s Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan at 12:20 p.m. PT today (2:20 a.m. Friday local time).

The trio is due to dock with the station on Saturday and meet up with the station’s three current residents: NASA’s Shane Kimbrough, the station’s commander; and Russian cosmonauts Andrey Borisenko and Sergey Ryzhikov.

Meanwhile, in a completely different orbit, two Chinese astronauts left the Tiangong 2 space lab, climbed into their Shenzhou 11 capsule and began their homeward journey. Jing Haipeng and Chen Dong are expected to touch down in Inner Mongolia on Friday.

By the time Whitson, Novitskiy and Pesquet return to Earth, sometime next spring, Whitson will have set a new U.S. record for the most cumulative time spent in space. The previous record (534 days) was set in September by NASA astronaut Jeff Williams.

Whitson still has a long way to go to break the overall records for age and time in space. The oldest man to go into space is John Glenn, who flew aboard the space shuttle Discovery in 1998 at the age of 77.

The holders of the records for most time spent in space are both Russian men: Gennady Padalka for cumulative time (879 days over the course of five spaceflights), and Valery Polyakov for continuous time (438 days in 1994-1995).

Update for 10 a.m. PT Nov. 18: As expected, the two Chinese astronauts landed in Inner Mongolia – closing out a monthlong mission aboard Tiangong 2 during which they tended silkworms and a crop of lettuce. “Sadly, our lettuce is only for experimental purposes, and not to be eaten,” Jing and Chen wrote in a journal shared with the Xinhua news service.

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