made history as the first female commander of the International Space Station (ISS) in 2007, but behind the success was her grit of applying to become an astronaut for 10 years.
"People say, 'Why, how, did you get lucky enough to be the first commander on the station or the first chief, female chief of the astronaut office?' It was that 10 years," Whitson said Wednesday on "CBS This Morning," ahead of International Women's Day. "That 10 years is what made me a better astronaut, it made me more prepared. I was doing negotiations in Russia, developing, working with small teams. I was leading."
Whitson, who said she had wanted to be an astronaut since the age of 9 after watching Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walk on the moon, spent 665 days in space – more time than any other American. Now retired, she also completed 10 space walks during her career.
"I think it was just unbelievable from where I came from in rural Iowa. It was pretty much unbelievable that I could do these things," Whitson said.
Luckily, she said, her parents were supportive.
"I think they just believed in me. I remember my mom telling me when I was about 12 that I could be anything I wanted, and I believed her," Whitson said.
In a field that tends to be dominated by men, Whitson said girls need to be educated earlier.
"We need everyone to feel like science is cool, being a geek is cool. And keep that going because right now I think maybe with social media and different things, young people have different priorities in their lives. We need to maybe emphasize the fact that a career is important," Whitson said.
This Friday, the SpaceX Dragon capsule is set to make its way back to earth from the ISS. The unmanned spacecraft, which docked with the station Sunday, is the first commercially built spacecraft capable of carrying people to do so.
Whitson said it's an interesting time where commercial capability is combining with NASA and the government.
"It's giving us a little bit more flexibility, maybe a little more innovative ways of doing things that aren't quite as easy to do in a NASA bureaucracy," Whitson said.
Combined with the NASA database of information and experience, Whitson believes the collaboration will be "very fruitful."
"Would you go back [to space]?" "CBS This Morning" co-host Bianna Golodryga asked her.
"In a heartbeat," Whitson responded.