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s a little girl, Sunita Williams contemplated becoming a veterinarian. When she eventually ended up at the US Naval Academy, that interest resurfaced. Told that that she and the other cadets would be watching a movie about seals, Williams thought she was about to learn about some water creatures. Little did she know that she was about to watch a movie about Navy SEALs—the Sea, Air and Land unit of the Navy. Fast forward a few years later: Williams was watching the Discovery Channel when she saw an ad for a show on seals—so she anticipated more of those Navy SEALs, only to find that the program was about—well, sea animals. That’s when she says, laughing, she discovered, “They really have brainwashed me.”

One thing I love about being here is that I never get bored. Being a pilot in the navy, you get to be an expert, and you do it so well and all the time, and you sort of get to that one point and you’re an expert at that operation. That’s what’s really fun about working here.

Besides being in a rare profession for women, Williams also has a unique family background. Born to a father from India who lectures on neuroscience at Harvard and Boston University medical schools and a mother of Yugoslavian descent who was working as an X-Ray technician when she met Williams’ father, Williams has inherited their determination and will to succeed. After graduating from the Naval Academy, Williams became a helicopter pilot, eventually going to test pilot school and earning her master’s degree in engineering management. In 1998, she was selected by NASA for astronaut candidate training, and since then she has been working on the space station project. Williams—who believes that “the second best view of the earth is when you’re flying pretty low over the earth and pretty fast,”—has been deployed as a pilot to the Mediterranean, the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf. On those missions, it was her job to transport goods from ship to ship: “Everything from eggs to bombs.”

Williams is a member of the Expedition-12 team will visit the international space station. She spends about half of her time in Russia learning about their side of the space station and receiving training on their spacecraft. And while she’s looking forward to moonwalks and researching radioactivity and bone and muscle deterioration in space, she’d also love the opportunity to go to the moon or Mars.

Working their [her father and his siblings] way through university and coming over to America, without much infrastructure—I think about leaving my home for another country—that seems more daring than the things I’ve done.

What prompted you to join the Naval Academy?
That’s a good question. My brother went to the Naval Academy and told me, “This could be the place for you,” because it’s active, physically active. It’s a part of the curriculum there. We grew up as competitive swimmers and our whole family is pretty active, grew up camping. I went for his graduation at the end of senior year and it seemed really neat. [Also] I was a little bit scared of school bills. Because my last few choices were Columbia or the Naval Academy—”Ooh, do I want to live in New York City and have school bills or have this adventurous career?” My brother sort of got me interested in it, and I thought, “What the heck, I’ll try it.”

Describe a typical workweek at NASA.
It’s never typical. We get our schedule every Friday and there are so many things you need to learn about. Basically, you need to learn about the basic systems of the American side of the space station and the Russian side of the space station. You need to know about the heating system, all the energy, how to regulate that, power and motion control and how the space station orients itself. There are two different parts of the space station, but they have to work together. Secondly, you do simulations, a day in the life of how it’s going to be up there, with emergencies and malfunctions. Every space mission is different—different science projects to be done, different spacewalks to be done, because the space station is still under construction—as the shuttles continue to come up, we’re going to have construction going on. Then you have to learn all your assembly tasks. On a given day, I could be flying a T-38, a trainer jet, over Florida, I could be in the neutral buoyancy lab, where we practice spacewalking—you’re in a pool in a space suit—to being in a virtual reality simulator doing robotic arm operations or simulating emergencies. There’s a myriad of things we do—basic stuff to just to get ready for your mission. It’s pretty fun. One thing I love about being here is that I never get bored. Being a pilot in the navy, you get to be an expert, and you do it so well and all the time, and you sort of get to that one point and you’re an expert at that operation. That’s what’s really fun about working here.

Don’t ever let anyone tell you, “You can’t do it.” That’s the biggest thing—I had one squad commander: “Being an astronaut is for jet pilots, not for helicopter pilots.” If you know that’s what you want, you’ve just got to go for it. You do the best you can do at what you’re doing and find out what you need to do to get in this field.

How do you think being a woman and/or being South Asian has affected either your career or how you handle situations?
It’s been pretty transparent—maybe I’ve been lucky or avoided acknowledging that I’m different. If you don’t acknowledge there’s a difference the people around you won’t acknowledge there’s a difference, and I think that’s beneficial. But I do think that there’s a little determination and persistence that came from my dad. I’m not going to let anybody tell me I can’t do anything, that’s for sure—but I equate the things I’ve done with being pretty minuscule compared to what my dad’s done. Working their [her father and his siblings] way through university and coming over to America, without much infrastructure—I think about leaving my home for another country—that seems more daring than the things I’ve done. I tell my dad, “I can’t imagine, what was your life like, how did you think to do that?” It makes you do what you do even better.

What advice can you offer women/minorities (or anyone, really) if they hope to have a career in the space program?
Don’t ever let anyone tell you, “You can’t do it.” That’s the biggest thing—I had one squad commander: “Being an astronaut is for jet pilots, not for helicopter pilots.” If you know that’s what you want, you’ve just got to go for it. You do the best you can do at what you’re doing and find out what you need to do to get in this field.

What would you be if you weren’t in this career?
I’d always wanted to be a veterinarian—an influence from my father. He did neuroscience, and we grew up with sketch drawings of brains all over the dining room table. And I’ve always loved animals, so [I thought] this would be something for me. I’d love to do it if I had time. My secondary career path at this moment: I think I’d like to be a teacher—a junior high science teacher. Because kids are cool and after coming here learning about space craft—some of the design principles are just basic stuff I remember learning in junior high. If you could relate it back to the classroom I think you could really inspire some kids.

I’m very, very lucky—there are people who have applied seven times. You can waste your whole life away [waiting for a spot]. Enjoy what you’re doing, you’ll naturally do it well, and if this opportunity comes up, it’s just a bonus.

How supportive was your family about going to the Naval Academy and pursuing a career as a pilot? Did they have some other career in mind for you?
They were, “Go for it.” My parents are wonderful. You didn’t come home with bad grades, and you were going to go to college [were the basic rules]. My mom came down to my flight school graduation ceremony. Amazed, but always very, very supportive. My dad loves the space program. I got him here, and he’s like, let’s see another simulator.

What has been the best part of your NASA experience? The worst?
I think the best part is working with all the international partners. I’ve done a bunch of different jobs, worked with the Russians. I never thought I’d be standing in Red Square, communicating in Russian. I also worked with the Canadians. We have a bunch of people from all over Europe, Japan, even Brazil. It breaks down any barriers—people are working together for one very cool project.

The only thing is missing going out to sea. I miss the peacefulness of it.

What’s the NASA selection process like?
You just apply, and all of the services [Army, Navy, Air Force] have their own sort of small selection, and they send names into NASA. Then NASA takes a look at a bunch of applications and goes through and chooses about 100 people or so. They come down for an interview, and the interview is primarily a medical exam, and you’re in front of a board of people who run NASA headquarters. They sort of want to get to know your personality, are you a team player? Everything you do is team-oriented. That’s primarily what the interview is about. I applied twice, but the first time I didn’t have my master’s degree, so I sort of knew [I wasn’t going to make it], but the second time I was really excited when I came down [for the interview].

I think I wrote up my application up in early 1997, and the interview was in the fall of ’97. I didn’t get told until summer of 1998—it takes a year and a half. I’m very, very lucky—there are people who have applied seven times. You can waste your whole life away [waiting for a spot]. Enjoy what you’re doing, you’ll naturally do it well, and if this opportunity comes up, it’s just a bonus.n

Nakasha Ahmad lives in Ohio.
Published on October 1, 2004.
Photography: Courtesy of NASA

More Information

NASA Official Web Site

Comments are closed.
  1. June 24, 2007, 9:33 am kundan

    Comments about sunita there is no words i have . As i read interview this is really ideal to younsters of whole world & also to indian womans. thats is Really honourable also indian like us

  2. June 28, 2007, 2:35 am Darshana Pawaskar

    She has made India proud. was she a scout/ guide any time ?

  3. June 28, 2007, 7:35 am Kalyan

    Great.She is inspiration to all women in India.
    We should not draw boundaries to our goals.

  4. July 4, 2007, 3:35 pm SIMMI

    SUNI IS A GOD-GIFT TO US.
    WHATEVER SHE HAS DONE IS UNBELIEVEABLE.
    MAY GOD GIVE HER WHATEVER SHE NEEDS IN HER LIFE.
    I LOVE HER VERY MUCH.
    SUNI! LIVE LONG LIFE.

  5. July 16, 2007, 2:19 am Roshan

    I acknowledge her accomplishments, thats wonderful, but she sounds more “Americanized” than Desi. The fact that her father and herself both married a Non-Indian shows how “Indian” they feel. They are both moving up the ladder and OUT of their Indian-ness, smooth like a sailing vessel.

  6. July 26, 2007, 8:09 am samiksha

    hi
    this is samiksha
    i love the courage wat sunita has
    gud work !!!
    go on!!!

  7. July 28, 2007, 11:41 am BENSON

    I APPRECIATE THE STRONG COURAGE OF SUNITHA WILLIAMS & I CONGRAGULATE SUNITHA TO BECOME A GREAT WOMAN WHO KNOW TO ANYONE IN THE WORLD.

  8. September 2, 2007, 2:19 am abumusta

    where She now ? what she doing now?
    is she in NASA now………?

    any body know that???????