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Sunita Williams' Tour of Duty—in Space

June 2006
Sunita Williams' Tour of Duty—in Space

Three years after the death of the first Indian American astronaut, Kalpana Chawla, in the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster, the U.S. space agency has selected another astronaut of Indian origin to fly into space.

Sunita Lyn Williams has been chosen by NASA (the National Aeronautics and Space Administration) to be part of its 14th crew for the International Space Station (ISS). The official announcement says, "Sunita Williams will join Expedition 14 in progress and serve as a flight engineer, after traveling to the station on space shuttle mission STS-116. This will be Williams's first space flight." She will be part of a three-member crew for the six-month-long International Space Station expedition slated to begin later this year. The ISS is a science lab that is growing into the brightest object in the night sky—after the moon.

A Lively Background

Williams is second generation Indian American. Her father Deepak Pandya, a neuroanatomist who teaches neuroscience at the Harvard and Boston University Medical Schools, emigrated to the U.S. from Ahmedabad in 1958. Her mother Bonnie is an American of Yugoslavian descent. Although Suni was born in Euclid, Ohio (on 19 September 1965), she considers Needham, Massachusetts to be her hometown. There she grew up loving dogs, horses, and the outdoors. She considered becoming a veterinarian, and now she and her husband Michael Williams (a physicist, now U.S. deputy marshal) have Labrador retrievers and a crazy Jack Russell Terrier named Gorby. Her favorite pastimes include running, swimming, biking, triathlons, windsurfing, snowboarding, and bow hunting.

Any graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy must show diligence and determination, especially a woman in a male-dominated field. Sunita's mother Bonnie recalls how Suni pursued her goals: "There were only 100 women when she got in the Naval school. Not surprisingly, pushing herself to the limits has been a lifelong trait for Sunita. "She took a lot of advance placement classes in high school. She was a swimmer: woke up every day at 4:45 in the morning and went for two hours of swimming. I mean she just concentrated on her studies, did a lot of swimming, played soccer, played the piano, took ballet lessons, and she was the captain of the swim team in high school and college. So I think all that discipline really helped her focus on her career," says the proud mother.

An Adventurous Life

After graduating as an Ensign, she became a diving officer and then a naval aviator. As part of a Helicopter Combat Support Squadron, she made overseas deployments to the Mediterranean, Red Sea, and the Persian Gulf in support of Desert Shield and Operation Provide Comfort. Continuing in missions of caring, she became the Officer-in-Charge of a detachment sent to Miami, Florida for Hurricane Andrew Relief Operations.

Training, and excelling, continued. After graduating from the U.S. Naval Test Pilot School in 1993, she returned in 1995 as instructor and safety officer. In the same year she completed her M.S. in Engineering Management from the Florida Institute of Technology. She has logged more than 2,770 flight hours in 30 different types of aircraft.

In 1998, Sunita was appointed a mission specialist at NASA. Two years of training were intensive, in classrooms and simulators. She worked for one year in Moscow with the Russian Space Agency on the Russian contribution to the International Space Station and then went to Canada for experience on robotic arms, at which they are the acknowledged masters. To learn what it would be like in outer space, she trained at Aquarius, living for nine days in a habitat under water. "This work requires physical and mental toughness as it tests you to the limits. And yet, it is exhilarating. I have had lots of fun and can actually say that I have never gone to work."

Danger is not the Focus

Sunita's mother is thrilled about her appointment for the space mission. "Oh, I feel delighted. To tell you the truth she had been waiting for this opportunity for quite a while now and finally it's going to come true, so she is very happy and we are very happy for her."

Well-wishers from across continents have joined Sunita and her family in the celebration. Greetings pour in from far and wide. From Ahmedabad and Junagarh where her father practiced medicine for some time, relatives call to congratulate. "All her friends are calling up as they saw her photo in the news and they say, ‘We can't believe it.' They are all very happy about that."

The Columbia shuttle tragedy was a gut-wrenching reminder for many of the deadly dangers involved in the venture of space exploration—but Sunita has had her family's constant support to pursue her career in space. Bonnie says, "Of course, as a mother I am concerned and I will always be. She is my baby, the youngest of my three children. But then, she is also an individual, and she chose her career and what she wants to do. She is an explorer—so what can you say? I just hope and pray to God that she goes up and comes back safely." About worry, "I am past all that. She is a very adventurous person. She was at the Naval Academy at a time when only a few women were selected, and she did extremely well there. She also flew helicopters during the Gulf War?.Well, everything is dangerous. You could be driving a car and can get in an accident. You know, I mean I can't think like that-- this is her career--.this is her dream-- she is following her dream and I am happy for her if that what she wants."

Sunita's proud father Deepak Pandya has no qualms about Sunita's career choice. "She is a highly motivated girl. She wanted to do this, so we hope everything works out just fine for her. We did not have any fear or hesitancy about her career. She has been in the military career for a long time—they were all dangerous missions. This is not new for us," he says.

A New Indian Heroine

Years ago in 1984, Rakesh Sharma from India flew on a Soviet mission to space for eight days. More recently, Kalpana Chawla, who was born in India but became the first Indian American astronaut, was a source of inspiration. Soon Sunita Williams will become the third person of Indian origin, the second Indian American woman, and the first American-born Indian American to fly in space—a new role model for all of us.

Sunita remembers Kalpana: "We soon became good friends. She was a gracious and unassuming woman. We spent many leisure hours together, took innumerable bike rides, spent time looking at birds, or went on long hikes. And we often flew together in a small airplane."

Now, although her husband is in Oregon, Sunita Williams is away in Houston training hard for the mission. Her mother says, "In fact, I think Suni is the first one to be assigned for a space mission from her class, so she is thrilled about that—and she will be doing four space walks while she is up there. ?It's just continuous training because they have to do so many things. She will probably be up there for six months."

Come fall and the NASA space mission will be ready for launch. And Sunita's parents are all set to witness the first flight of their daughter into space from Cape Canaveral in Florida. "We will be proudly watching her space flight going smoothly," says her father. And a lot of Indians are among those who will be watching Sunita Williams' first flight into space with excitement and hope.


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