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Sunita's Space Mission

November 2007
Sunita's Space Mission

By the time Sunita Williams touched down on Earth in June, the NASA astronaut had set a record for the most time spent in space by a woman by surpassing Shannon Lucid's 188 day, 4 -hour record set in 1996. She also held the record for the most time spent by a woman outside a spacecraft by completing four spacewalks with a total time of 29 hours and 17 minutes.

It's little wonder then that Williams – the daughter of Dr. Deepak Pandya of Falmouth, Mass. and mother Bonnie from Slovenia – was treated like a rock star on a recent visit to India.

Prior to her arrival in India, a minor controversy threatened to cast a shadow over her visit. Gujarat's Chief Minister Narendra Modi had been hesitant to applaud Williams' achievements because of his bitter rivalry with her slain cousin, Haren Pandya of the Bharatiya Janata Party. But, soon he was rolling out the red carpet for her. Pandya's father, Vitthal, has blamed Modi for the "political murder" of his son. While visiting the Indian Institute of Technology in Bombay, a student advised Williams: "Please, don't entertain any of the political parties who want to cash in on your Indian background."

The astronaut's response helped clear the air and was greeted with thunderous applause. "I thought how beautiful our planet was when compared to Mars or the moon. You don't see your hometown or the crowded streets. You see the planet's big geographical features. Our planet does not have political separations. Those are what we draw," she said. "The boundaries of gender, religion or race are just in your mind, they are really not there."

Prior to her departure for India, in an interview with Ashish Kumar, Sen Williams declined to discuss the Modi controversy. The purpose of her terrestrial mission, she said, was to generate interest in space among schoolchildren. "I just want to share my experience with as many folks as possible," Williams said, adding,"I realize not everyone gets this opportunity and hope to generate more interest in space among the next generation."

Excerpts from her interview:

You set a record for the most time spent in space by a woman while on board the International Space Station. Doesn't it get lonely up there? How did you cope?

There were three of us up there and thousands of folks on the ground keeping us safe. I didn't feel lonely at all. It was like there was a huge family working together to make sure we were getting all the things done we needed to. It was a lot of fun!

What are some memorable experiences from your mission?

Of course, the space walks were amazing with the incredible views. But just being there representing humanity and experiencing all the good that folks can do when they work together was truly rewarding.

What were some of the challenges you faced in space that people take for granted on Earth?

Everyday life in space is different. I call these issues "1G" effects – like trying to "pour" nuts out of a bag and you realize it doesn't work. I think the things that our brains know work on earth like eating;, keeping track of little items that don't have Velcro on them; using the bathroom;, these are all things we know and do in a "1G" environment that you can't train for on Earth. The technical things we did, we trained for very thoroughly before going to space so those things were not surprising.

What was it like participating in the Boston marathon from space?

It was fun, but difficult, just like it is on Earth. 26.2 miles of running is a long way. Luckily I didn't have the hills that the runners in Boston had to experience, or the bad weather. The harness on the treadmill however is a little difficult and actually painful to wear. But my crewmates were there with me and cheered me on to keep me going.

What did you do to keep occupied in your free hours?

The free time was spent interacting and sharing with each other our cultures and our thoughts on life. That was great. We also spent time communicating with friends and family back home by email and the IP phone we have. It was always nice to talk about the weather and what was going on, on Earth.

What did you miss most while in space?

I think family and friends. Especially my dog, since I couldn't write to him on email or talk to him on the phone. I also missed having a glass of milk to dunk cookies. I missed rain and the feeling of wind on my face.

Did you do anything special to celebrate your return to Earth?

Just hung out with my family and dog after I got back. We got some pizza and that tasted really good!

Now that you're back on Earth what do you miss most about space?

Everything! The view of course, the floating and the peacefulness of looking down at such a serene planet. It truly is a beautiful place and I love the time I had to just take it all in.

What are some of your fondest memories of India?

India is a very vivid country full of color and opportunity. I have great memories of understanding the history of the people there and enjoying everyday life with our family members and friends. I am looking forward to doing that again.

By Ashis Kumar Sen

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