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Sunita Williams bids bye to shuttle

As the Atlantis shot into the sky, its tail on fire, Sunita Williams watched with mixed feelings. There was joy for the astronauts on board - they were all her friends - and there was sorrow for the shuttle.

world Updated: Jul 19, 2011 00:04 IST
Yashwant Raj

As the Atlantis shot into the sky, its tail on fire, Sunita Williams watched with mixed feelings. There was joy for the astronauts on board - they were all her friends - and there was sorrow for the shuttle.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration, better known as Nasa, is facing an uncertain future with the end of its manned space travel programme. Atlantis, its 135th mission, is going to be its last.

"It was a bitter-sweet moment," Williams told Hindustan Times in an interview.

Shortly after the launch Sunita left for Tokyo to train for her second mission to the International Space Station, this time on Russian spacecraft Soyuz.

Her last trip to the station was made aboard space shuttle Discovery in 2006.

She came home on the Atlantis. Williams was the second astronaut of Indian-origin to go to the ISS. The first was Kalpana Chawla, who died with the rest of the crew of shuttle Columbia which was destroyed on re-entry in 2003.

There are now questions about the future of Nasa. It has plans of sending deeper space probes, to bodies beyond the Moon. And there is the ambitious project of sending a manned flight to go around Mars.

Williams hopes to be on one of them. These will be long duration flights and she has some experience in that already - she stayed at the space station for a record 194 days, that's over six months.

"One of the reasons we want to do a long duration flight was to help us understand how humans live in space over a long period of time," she said, adding, "and I am hopeful our experience will help Nasa's future programmes."

"I would be definitely interested in these exploration programmes," she said.

But questions are being raised about Nasa itself. It is shedding staff and restructuring itself to survive with fears of further cuts in funding. The premier space body is actively looking at working with the private sector.

"I am ever the optimist and I look at this as little bit of slimming down and tightening the belt," Williams said, adding, "Nasa like every government organization has some bureaucracy which can become slimmer."

She is hopeful of the organisation making it through these trying times.

"I personally look forward to building the Orion," Williams said, adding, "I believe that our country needs to pursue that technology."

Orion is being built for deep space probes and it is currently undergoing tests.

Any personal milestones for herself, for the flight aboard Soyuz in 2012?

She is not sure yet. On her last trip, she had run the marathon aboard the ISS at the same time as the race on the ground.

There are some plans to do something to coincide with the London Olympics in 2012.

"We have been joking - how about competing in simultaneous high jump long jumps," she said, laughing.

A jump in zero gravity will be hard to beat. But that's just an idea, and not a bad one at that.