Sunita Williams is a renowned U.S. astronaut, currently serving as head of the NASA department at the Yuri Gagarin Center for Cosmonaut Preparation near Moscow.
She holds the records for longest single space flight by a woman (195 days), total spacewalks by a woman (seven), and most spacewalk time for a woman (50 hours, 40 minutes). She spoke to The Astana Times about her life story, the meaning of space exploration and the work of the International Space Station, as well as about her impressions of Kazakhstan.
You hold the record for the longest single space flight among women. What does “space” mean for you: your passion, the meaning of life or just hard work?
Space means so much to me. We are so lucky to have the opportunity to actually go to space to look back on our planet and see our planet from that perspective. It easily displays to us how fragile our world is and how we really should take care of it, not only for our sake but for the sake of every lucky living creature on our planet. It also makes it entirely clear that we as humans are really all the same and should treat each other with respect and interest. Everyone is living together on this planet – there is nowhere else we could live that we know of. We should all be working together.
You also made the largest number of spacewalks and hold the record for total work time in open space among women. What was the most difficult?
I feel very lucky to be in the right place at the right time to do the spacewalks we did. Sure, some of it was very physically demanding – the suit weighs over 300 lbs and it is not easy to maneuver yourself – but the most demanding part was probably the mental aspect of being out in space. That is also the best part of spacewalks as well. It is certainly work, but I found I had to stop now and then and look out – to see really where I was – in between the comfort and familiarity of our atmosphere and the vast unknown of space. It is an incredible feeling that really puts life in perspective. There is so much out there we don’t know – but we have to be adventurous and brave and take these steps so we can go further.
Your father is an Indian, and your mother is Slovene. Who do you feel yourself? Tell us more about yourself: how did you come to the Navy, become a pilot? If it is possible, tell us more about participation in military operations or the elimination of the effects of Hurricane Andrew in 1992.
In the words of great friend, [U.S. astronaut] Kalpana Chawla, I feel like I am a citizen of the universe. I am so happy to have parents from very different backgrounds because that gave me the opportunity to first hand understand what compassion, understanding, tolerance and love is all about – even between very different cultures. In my professional years I have had the opportunity to travel all over the world, and do many things from protecting our people to lending a helping hand when people are in devastating situations, like after a natural disaster. Learning from these differences renewed my awareness that people are really just people – we are all here on this planet together. Working together is something that will make us a better, smarter species. Together we all have a vested interest in helping our planet. Going to space with an international crew helps again to reinforce how important it is to work together for a common goal.
When you enrolled in the 17th NASA astronaut team, in what public scientific and technological projects were you involved?
For my entire career as an astronaut we have been working on the International Space Station. Most of it was planned out before our class started in 1998, but of course there have been modifications and changes along the way. The beginning of the construction started shortly after we arrived with the flight of the Russian FGB. My first flight, in 2006, was right in the middle of the construction of the station as we changed temporary power and thermal control systems to the permanent ones we have today. My second flight, in 2012, took place as we finished the construction and the emphasis changed to performing science in the world class laboratories we have in space now. It is an amazing project of international cooperation, engineering mastering and scientific exploration.
What do you remember from the first flight into space in 2006 as a member of the 14th Expedition to ISS: any interesting thoughts or facts?
Sure, I learned so much from my very experienced crewmates, Michael Lopez-Alegria and Misha Turin. Although two Americans and a Russian, we were very international from the start as Michael is a Spanish American and I am an Indian American. Immediately we began sharing stories of our lives and I learned not only how to live and work in space, but also the value of the team in space. Now that is really the key to success of an exploration mission: keeping everyone involved and everyone as part of the team.
The following year, in 2007, you became the first person that ran a marathon in space. Was it a space experiment or a PR action?
A little of both. Of course, I wanted to push myself and see how much I could do, but really it was to emphasize and demonstrate that even astronauts have to work at keeping themselves in good physical shape. It was a way for people on earth to connect with the physical fitness tasks we need to do in space to keep ourselves healthy human beings and finally it was really to emphasize to children that physical fitness is and should be part of everyone’s daily life to keep them fit and healthy. I wanted kids to understand that they should never take their health for granted and be thankful that they live on this beautiful planet where they can go for a run, a walk or a swim anytime they want.
Your second flight in 2012 as a flight engineer on Soyuz TMA-05M was the most interesting and intensive, was not it?
It was certainly very interesting. I think all space flights are extremely interesting – being in space is fascinating and beautiful! Being a flight engineer for the Soyuz was very professionally satisfying. As a pilot, of course, I wanted to understand and be able to fly the spacecraft I was flying in. So, learning those skills were very rewarding to me and the instruction was just outstanding. By the end of my training I had full confidence that I would certainly fly the Soyuz. That is a huge credit to the instructors and trainers at Star City. They are really great.
Tell us more about the session with a LEGO robot controlled from space and located on the earth at the European Space Operations Centre in Darmstadt. In addition, “Interplanetary Internet”, a super-range communications technology, came about that can be used for data transmission from space to space.
I only performed a very small part of this experiment – but we were able to actually drive the robot from the space station. That communications link was really the most important part of this programme. That expertise will hopefully be used in the future to help us drive robots on the surface of Mars for example with a system of satellites. That would be fantastic. So, I hope in some small way, the work we did together will open many more doors in the future for exploration.
For more than a week, ISS had been experiencing problems with the power supply, and then a miracle happened. Mass media reported that the space station costing more than US$150 billion was repaired with a three-dollar toothbrush. And it was you who did it! How did the idea of this improvement come to you?
Well, the toothbrush was only a small part of the entire repair. Aki [Hoshide] and I were given quite a lot of help by way of suggestions and instructions on how to repair the power box of the ISS. We executed the plan and it worked as was predicted. It was really the work of many, many dedicated people who work on the ISS. I really believe that we, as a team, could repair anything, with whatever we have on the ISS, to include the simple tings, like a toothbrush.
We know you love experiments related to biology and medicine. Why?
We need to do these types of experiments to make sure we are ready, as humans, to continue to explore outside of low earth orbit. We have so much more to learn about putting a human body in space for a long period of time with high exposure to radiation. We need to understand all the aspects of this type of exploration to make better, smarter spacecraft for the next generation to fly in. We need to do all we can to make space travel better for the future generations. We need to keep taking the next steps and, doing this, we can do that.
ISS astronauts were delighted by the delivery of ice cream to space when the Dragon ship brought aboard homemade vanilla-chocolate ice cream, almost as in a fairytale. How do you see the development of space exploration and the future of humanity? Do you believe in UFOs?
Space, of course, will continue to be explored. It is in our human heart and desire, to know more and more. I have no doubt about that. I am not sure how long it will take for us to develop the technology to leave low earth orbit and explore other planets, but I am sure it will happen. I am sure we will go back to the moon, since it is so “close” by and use that experience to help us step by step go farther and farther from planet Earth. I am sure one day some human will travel to another planet in another galaxy and will find some forms of life. I don’t know about UFO exactly, but I do think with all the millions of stars in our universe, there has to be another solar system out there that would support a planet with some atmospheric composition that would support life.
After returning from space in 2007, you cut your long hair and gave it to a charity for women who lost their hair due to chemotherapy. Why?
Why not?! As a young Indian girl with long hair, I used to think that hairstyles defined us. With space hair – I certainly don’t believe that nowadays. It is an attribute of each of us, but not defining. I thought the least I could do is donate what I have to others who don’t have it. It was a symbol of how we can help each other out when we are feeling down for whatever reason. Just a small symbol and a small token of my appreciation for the courage these folks have.
You have bright, rich in events and training life. Where do you find time for family, for walks with your dog, Gorby?
There is always time for family, friends and Gorby! That is really the meaning of life – relationships we have and ones keep hold very close. This business is about bringing out the best we have in each other and learning about each other. Each of us comes from somewhere as a result of something – family and friends really do form all of us. I am so thankful to be surrounded by so many wonderful people and have so many opportunities to enjoy nature and the world around us with them.
The relations between space and women are a matter for special conversation or already common practice for the American space industry?
I think it is generally common to have men and women in the US space industry. We have policies which provide the opportunity for anyone to do anything they would like to do. Of course, people need to be qualified and competent in their jobs to excel and achieve certain goals. I think it is common practice to provide the opportunities for men and women to do any job, and being an astronaut is one of those opportunities.
Would you share with us your further space-related plans. Are you preparing for something special?
I don’t know quite yet what will be next. Of course, I would love to fly to space again – maybe as a mentor, maybe on a new spacecraft. But besides that, I would love to teach kids math and science and get the next generation of space explorers excited about doing just that and working toward it.
On November 19, 2012 Soyuz TMA-05M landed 91 km northeast of the town of Arkalyk. Hospitable Kazakh land is the cradle of world space exploration. What links you and Kazakhstan?
Working with the International Space Station, I have been to Kazakhstan many times. It is truly a home to human space flight. When we come back to earth from space and land in Kazakhstan, even though it is thousands of miles from our home towns, we all know, astronauts and cosmonauts, that we are home. That is an amazing feeling. We know that landing on this planet means so much to each of us – the family and friends we have, the pets and animals that live on this planet, the weather, however different from one place to another, it is all part of our home – Earth. So, coming to Kazakhstan after being in space, all humans feel they are home.