She would be another American astronaut
of Indian origin when she would journey to the International Space Station in
fall 2006. It would be NASAís 14th expedition to the station and her maiden
space voyage. For the six month mission Sunita Williams will serve as a flight
engineer. We recently spoke to her.
How did a helicopter pilot get to become an astronaut? Lot of people
sort of chuckled, saying only jet pilots become astronaut. I am stubborn and
persistence. I thought, well, what the heck I should try. On a field trip to
Johnson Space Center, John Young, who went to moon twice, was telling us that he
had to learn to fly helicopter to do lunar landings. So I had positive
reinforcement that if you are a helicopter pilot then you have the skills needed
for the astronaut program.
What you will be doing in the space station? My main job during
the space shuttle would be doing the robotics. During the flight that takes me
up there we will be doing a major power reconfiguration in the space. We would
be doing a whole lot of experiments on the body and some new equipment - a new
method to detect potential presence of bacteria, growing soybeans in a
centrifuge. We ourselves are experiment and would be doing two hours of physical
Will you be doing any special projects there? What I would
love to do is some kind of physical fitness, cardio-vascular type of experiment
to help understand what happens with physical fitness in space and microgravity
environment. I would like to get a school challenged to have kids workout with
me. They can understand why exercise is very important for them on the ground
too. This is one of the initiatives I am working on right now.
Do you plan to do any tests on your long hair in space?
Unfortunately, I will cut it. Not because itís a rule but itís the right thing
to do. When stuff floats around in the space station it clogs up filters and
gets in the way of cleanliness and the environment control system. So the
smartest thing to do is to cut the hair.
What books or food are you planning to take with you? I am not
exactly sure what books we can take as it is more paper up there. So we might
take books on CD. My father and I were talking about taking the Gita. One of my
favorite books, which I think I will take, is called the Life of Pi. My fatherís
favorite book is Odyssey, so I will also take that. If I can smuggle in some
samosas then I will try to do that.
Your father is Hindu and mother is Christian. How was it growing up in an inter-faith home?
I think I was very lucky. I used to go
to church all the time with my mom and dad. My dad and I would always be there
sitting there together and he would bring his Gita and read it to me. As a child
it did not confuse me. It gave me a greater understanding that the religious is
sort of all the same thing, just the different version for different parts of
the worlds. That is how I understood as a child. As I grown older I think thatís
really quite accurate.
How was it living under water for nine days? It was an
absolutely amazing experience. How often do you get to live under water? Not
just go down and come back but just actually live there. My biggest impression
is that under water is not our home as humans but it is a home of the fish.
Whatever they were doing - may be hunting for food. It was spectacular.
How did Kalpana Chawlaís accident affect you? It made me very
reflective about what is really important in life - its family, friends, being
nice to people. If by chance something happens and I donít get to fly in the
space then thatís ok. If I could just be a part of this program then that is
Who is your role model? There is no way I could be like him but the
person I would like to emulate would be Mahatma Gandhi. More realistically, I
think the person for me is Beryl Markham. She was an amazing early woman flyer.
She was a bush pilot in Africa and ended up flying across the Atlantic Ocean
just like Lindbergh but in the opposite way.
What you love being a woman of Indian origin? I think I have a freedom to
dress with a lot of color. Somebody asked me what is my favorite thing about
India and I think it is the colors. Every time you see people in Indian clothes
it makes you smile because the colors are so amazing.