Sunita Williams, U.S. commander of the Expedition 33 crew at the International Space Station, has accomplished several out-of-this-world feats.
Williams has logged 322 days during two space flights, making her as the second most experienced American female astronaut. She holds the record for the longest spaceflight, 195 days, by a woman and is the second female commander in the International Space Station’s history.
With 50 hours and 40 minutes, Williams also holds the record for total cumulative space walk time by a female astronaut. She said she completed seven space walks, of which three were to replace a component that relays power from the station’s solar arrays to its systems and to repair an ammonia leak.
An avid athlete whose interests include running, swimming, biking, windsurfing and bow hunting, Williams is the first astronaut to complete the first-ever triathlon in space. While aboard the International Space Station, she used special exercise equipment to run, bike and “swim” against her Earth-based competitors participating in the last year’s Nautica Malibu Triathlon in Southern California. She also ran the 2007 Boston marathon on a space treadmill.
Still what Williams wants most is to inspire the next generation. Sunday morning, she reassured the packed audience inside the Onizuka Space Center at Kona International Airport that among them were youngsters who may break her records someday, as well as potentially be the ones to build a station on the moon and figure out how to manufacture stuff there.
By sharing stories of her recent “vacation from Earth” and path to becoming an astronaut, Williams hoped to spark interest in space and to help create future explorers. Her presentation was part of the 27th Challenger commemorative event, presented by the Onizuka Memorial Committee and Onizuka Space Center.
Born and raised in Kona, Ellison Onizuka was Hawaii’s first astronaut, and his famous 1980 “Message to Future Generations” has inspired many to pursue science and space careers, as well as other dreams. On Jan. 28, 1986, he was among the seven people board the Challenger who died when the space shuttle exploded during liftoff. Since, Onizuka’s family, as well as the not-for-profit educational facility and memorial committee dedicated to his memory, have worked to keep his legacy alive. Annually, speakers like Williams share the excitement of space with people of all ages during the Challenger commemorative event in Kona.
Williams grew up in Needham, Mass., and her parents had no background in the military or space. Her father immigrated from India and was a neuroscientist while her mother was an X-ray technician in a hospital. They met when he was going through residency. The youngest of three children, Williams had always thought she would become a veterinarian.
Among the top 5 percent of high school graduating class, which was about 500 people, Williams admitted her disappointment when she didn’t get into the colleges of her choices. She was accepted to Columbia University. However, Williams, a die-hard Boston Red Sox baseball fan, said it wasn’t a choice, but mostly because she was a little scared to live in New York City. Looking for free education, Williams took her older brother’s suggestion of following his lead by attending the U.S. Naval Academy. She said this meant doing something else scary at the time — cutting her hair.
Williams graduated from the academy with a bachelor of science in physical science. Williams said she originally wanted to be a diver, but there was only one opening for a female diver and the choice was given based on class rankings. Because she graduated in the middle of her class, Williams said someone else got the spot and she had to do something else. The movie “Top Gun” had just come out and Williams decided being a jet pilot would be just as great. But even after doing well in flight school, she wasn’t ranked high enough to get her top choice. So, she became a helicopter pilot.
“You don’t always need to know what you want to do,” Williams said. “Sometimes things happen.”
Williams said she didn’t realize she could be an astronaut until she was 25 years old. The realization happened when Williams toured the Johnson Space Center in Texas with her test pilot school class. There, she met former astronaut John Young, who talked about landing on the moon and having to learn how to fly helicopter to do the lunar landing. Williams instantly saw the similarities between what he and she did, which led her to look into the astronaut program. However, she wasn’t selected by NASA until 1998.
Becoming an astronaut, Williams said, takes more than being good at math and science. She advised hopefuls to also be good at teamwork, leadership and following. She also stressed the importance of understanding cultural differences, being healthy and staying in shape.
Williams recently spent four months on the International Space Station, which she described as a wonderful example of how countries and cultures can work together, despite their differences. It’s also “a stepping stone for human exploration” as “the people of Earth” potentially prepare to return to the Moon and push outward to Mars. The experiments are helping scientists and engineers from 16 nations better understand how to live in space for an extended period of time. The research also benefits life on Earth now, she said.
Thirteen-year-old Ragan Leslie attended Sunday’s presentation with the Kona Composite Squadron of the Hawaii Wing Civil Air Patrol. Leslie, the squadron’s master sergeant, said the cadets are ages 12 to 21, and most have dreams of joining the military or becoming pilots. For all of them, meeting an astronaut whose done both is “exciting” and “a good experience,” he added.
Since age 5, Leslie has wanted to be a U.S. Air Force fighter pilot. He found it interesting how a little bit of happenstance led Williams to become an astronaut. He also enjoyed learning about her intense training and work — from keeping in shape in space and tracking how spiders adapt to weightlessness to doing regular cognitive and medical assessments. He called the International Space Station “inspirational,” saying “it’s pretty cool how various countries can come together, work together, share ideas and build something that benefits everyone.”
But what Leslie said he admired most was how Williams reached her goals, as well as challenged youth to take space exploration to the next level. “It’s up to us to keep reaching for the stars, and I think there are plenty of us up for the challenge,” he added.