Indian-origin astronaut, Sunita Williams, returns to space for the third time, here’s a look at her illustrious career - Hindustan Times
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Indian-origin astronaut, Sunita Williams, returns to space for the third time, here’s a look at her illustrious career

ByKiran Mehta
Jun 11, 2024 07:00 AM IST

“I really appreciate my Indian heritage and was glad I could bring part of it with me to space.” Williams told reporters when referring to previous missions.

“Don’t let anyone ever tell you, ‘You can’t do it’. That’s the biggest thing…,” said Sunita Lyn Williams in an interview, way back in 2008. The American astronaut, who traces her paternal roots to Gujarat, has lived by these words.

NASA astronaut Sunita Williams laughs with relatives as she leaves the Operations and Checkout building before heading to Space Launch Complex 41 to board the Boeing's Starliner capsule atop an Atlas V rocket for a mission to the International Space Station at the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, Monday, May 6, 2024, in Cape Canaveral, Fla. AP/PTI(AP05_07_2024_000131B)(AP) PREMIUM
NASA astronaut Sunita Williams laughs with relatives as she leaves the Operations and Checkout building before heading to Space Launch Complex 41 to board the Boeing's Starliner capsule atop an Atlas V rocket for a mission to the International Space Station at the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, Monday, May 6, 2024, in Cape Canaveral, Fla. AP/PTI(AP05_07_2024_000131B)(AP)

On June 5, 2024, the Boeing Starliner, piloted by Williams, lifted off from the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida, with astronaut Butch Wilmore as the commander of the mission. With this launch, Williams became the first woman to pilot a spacecraft on its maiden voyage.

This is one of many records that Williams has set: She first flew into space aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery in 2006 - 2007. While onboard, she established a world record for women with the most spacewalks -- four spacewalks totalling 29 hours and 17 minutes (The record was later beaten by astronaut Peggy Whitson in 2008).

Yet another endearing record that Williams set during this mission was to be the first person to complete a marathon in space. To date, she remains the only woman to hold this record. Williams participated in the Boston Marathon from space, running on the treadmill and completing the marathon in about four hours and 24 minutes, even as the spacecraft orbited Earth.

Williams set another record on yet another mission to space; In 2012, she flew to the International Space Station (ISS) from Kazakhstan onboard the Soyuz (a largely Russian crewed spacecraft) along with Russian commander Yuri Malenchenko and Flight Engineer Akihiko Hoshide of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency.

This time she performed three spacewalks to replace a component and repair an ammonia leak on the station radiator, along with Hoshide. With 50 hours and 40 minutes, Williams yet again set a record for the highest total cumulative spacewalk time by a woman astronaut. (This has since been overtaken by Peggy Whitson)

While we may hear of Williams’ many achievements and awards, including the Padma Bhushan (2008), her journey wasn’t always easy. “I wasn’t a triple-A student. I failed two college courses. But I learned from the failures,” said Williams in 2016 during her visit to India while addressing the FICCI Ladies Organisation.

While addressing the ladies' organisation, Williams reportedly said that she ended up at the Naval Academy, not because she had always planned to study there, but because she was looking for an affordable college education. She said that she became a pilot because her first choice - diving - had no vacancies.

“There was a pilot opportunity open, so I said I would try it. Getting out there and trying things, and not being afraid to try things is important,” she said. She began her astronaut candidate training at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, in 1998, and thereafter went on to script history.

Born to an Indian father, Williams was the second American woman of Indian origin to venture into space; the first being Kalpana Chawla who lost her life aboard the ill-fated Space Shuttle Columbia in 2003. Williams was born in Ohio to neuroanatomist Deepak Pandya from Mumbai. Pandya’s family traces their roots to the Mehsana District in Gujarat. Her mother, Ursuline Bonnie (Zalokar) Pandya is of Slovenian descent.

“I really appreciate my Indian heritage and was glad I could bring part of it with me to space.” Williams has told reporters about previous missions. During this current mission, Williams has reportedly packed along samosas, marking a connection to her ‘desi’ roots.

The Boeing Starliner, which took off on June 5, was met with various delays and technical hurdles, over a long period of time. But the successful launch could herald a new beginning in space travel: Boeing’s entry into space and increased options on spacecraft for NASA.

William’s words, minutes before the launch were, “Let’s go Calypso”, referring to the Starliner capsule. “Take us to space and back”, she said. The Starliner landed at the ISS on June 6th. To celebrate her arrival, Williams performed a little dance and hugged the other astronauts on board the ISS. The Starliner is slated to return on June 10, and while in space all eyes are on Williams who may surprise us by setting yet another incredible record.

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