Astronaut Sunita Williams, narrated interesting anecdotes about her life en route to becoming an astronaut, in an interactive session with Sachin Bahmba, chairman and managing director of SPACE group. As Williams reminisced about her childhood and youth and picked her way through the numerous twists and turns to choose her profession, she immediately struck a rapport with audience that comprised students from 60 schools across the Capital and NCR.
Since your family has roots in India, what has been your connection with this land?
Oh, I totally love India. Growing up in America with my parents and siblings, stories from India always fascinated me. I really looked forward to seeing elephants and mongoose when I visited the country. The first time I had come here was when I was 8 years old. I remember how some three hundred people followed us, as we stepped into the village my dad grew up in. We were touched by the love and hospitality our Indian family had to offer us. A big fan of animal that I am, I was taken for an elephant and camel ride. In fact, I was so moved after seeing a baby camel that I literally wanted to take it back home. Alas, the baby camel was too big to fit in my suitcase.
Were you always determined about taking up this profession or it happened by chance?
As a child I wanted to become a veterinarian. However, my dreams were shattered when despite being a bright student; I failed to get through my choice of universities. The turning point of my life was when, heeding my brother’s suggestion, I joined the naval school. There, I learned engineering, science, military and scout -- and realised that I loved the subject. I eventually ended up becoming a test pilot and was flying helicopters when a visit to the Johnson Space Center left me thinking about becoming an astronaut. So you know, I always encourage students to try different things as you may not know what may actually click for you.
What were your favourite subjects as a student?
I was in love with science. My dad was a scientist and we spent hours at his laboratory. I loved physics too as it sounded logical. I, however, was not very fond of maths and ensured that I complete the homework during lunch break, so that I did not have to carry the heavy book home.
When were you first introduced to the world of sports?
My dad once fell into a lake and was almost drowned. The incident scared him so much that he made all his kids learn swimming even before they could walk.
Recount your experience after being selected for training as part of the Nasa space programme.
When selected, you begin to think that you’re an astronaut. No, you are not. You are just an astronaut candidate. During the two years of training, I learnt about the technicalities involved in building spacecrafts and rockets. I visited different space centres and witnessed the making of payloads and engines. Space has extremes of temperature. One needs to know how to deal with it. I was trained to wear spacesuits, taste food in space, to operate electronics and all other classroom details.
Define the feeling while waiting for the launch of a spacecraft.
Everybody who’s done it before will try to pacify you but you continue to feel restless. It’s no less than a drama. You realise something happening at the bottom of the craft that shakes you -- literally. You begin to hear loud noises and are propelled off the ground. It’s like holding on to your life for the first minutes until the rocket takes off. As you advance upwards, you have hard time breathing. And then comes the craziest part -- when everything around you begins to float in the air. Oh, it’s an amazing experience.
How did you feel when you saw Earth from space for the very first time?
So, we were upside-down looking through the windows of the space shuttle, when we first saw the upper round curve of the planet. It felt great. We were like ‘That’s the place where we live’. The view is such that you can actually make out the thin layer of atmosphere surrounding the planet.
After all the success stories, how have you changed as a person?
When you are up there for a long time, when space becomes your home, you realise how trivial everything is. It doesn’t matter if you are from country A or B, all that really matters is that you are from planet Earth.
So you had carried a Bhagvad Gita and samosas to space. Throw some light on it.
My dad had given me the book and asked me to read it daily before I go to sleep. And for the samosas, I just love them. We had got it from an Indian community near Nasa that sells delicious food.
Describe your daily life at space.
See, we have normal working days up there. We wake up at 6 in the morning and stay up for 16 hours. Like on Earth, we too have a relaxed weekend. We clean the space station, do some experiments and sleep. Sundays are fun as we get to skype chat with our families.
What are your next plans?
Right now, I, along with three other astronauts are working closely on Nasa’s commercial crew project that is planning to send private flights to the International Space Station that will further open up low-Earth orbit transportation to the private sector.