Sunita Williams is an American astronaut and a United States Navy officer who holds the record for the longest space flight by a woman. She was born Sunita Pandya Krishna on September 19, 1965 in Euclid, Ohio to parents of Indian and Slovenian decent. She graduated from Needham High School in Needham, Massachusetts in 1983, and then went on to receive a Bachelor of Science degree in Physical science from the United States Naval Academy in 1987. She was immediately commissioned as an Ensign in the United States Navy. She spent six months at the Naval Coastal System Command and was then designated as a Basic Diving Officer. In July 1989, after training at the Naval Air Training Command, she became a Naval Aviator and began working with the Helicopter Combat Support Squadrons. During this time, Williams spent time overseas supporting Operation Desert Shield and Operation Provide Comfort in the Mediterranean, the Red Sea, and the Persian Gulf. In September 1992, Williams led an H-46 detachment aboard the USS Sylvania to Miami, Florida for Hurricane Andrew relief operations. In January 1993, after graduating from the U.S. Naval Test Pilot School, Williams was assigned to the Rotary Wing Aircraft Test Directorate as an H-46 Project Officer and V-22 chase pilot. Additionally, she flew many test flights in numerous aircrafts. Williams received a Master of Science degree in Engineering Management from the Florida Institute of Technology in 1995, and in December of that year, she reported back to the Naval Test Pilot School—this time as an instructor in the Rotary Wing Department and the school’s Safety Officer. After, she was assigned to the USS Saipan as the Aircraft Handler and the Assistant Air Boss.
In June 1998, while deployed on the Saipan, Williams was chosen to be a NASA astronaut candidate. She reported to the Johnson Space Center the following August. After extensive training with the Space Shuttle and International Space Station systems as well as learning water and wilderness survival techniques, Williams was ready for future space flight assignments. In 2001, she became a licensed amateur radio operator; and she also worked with the Russian Space Agency in Moscow in support of the ISS. When Expedition 1 concluded, Williams worked on the Special Purpose Dexterous Manipulator and the ISS Robotic Arm. In May 2002, she lived and worked underwater for nine days on the NEEMO 2 mission. On December 9, 2006, Williams was launched into space aboard Space Shuttle Discovery on STS-116. The mission headed to the International Space Station to join the Expedition 14 crew, and later transferred to Expedition 15. Eight days into the mission, she performed her first of three spacewalks during the mission. While on the space station, Williams decided to donate her pony tail to Locks of Love and had fellow astronaut Joan Higginbotham cut it off. Williams also had an unusual request for spicier food, so in March 2007 a resupply mission brought a tube of wasabi to the ISS. However, due to the difference in atmospheric pressure, the wasabi was forced out of the tube like a geyser and was difficult to control, making a notable memory for the crew on board. On April 16, 2007, she became the first astronaut to run a marathon in orbit by completing the 2007 Boston Marathon in four hours and 24 minutes. After 195 days in space, Williams returned to Earth aboard Space Shuttle Atlantis on STS-117.
In September 2007, after her return from the ISS, Williams went to India. She visited the Sabarmati Ashram, which was an innovation by Mahatma Gandhi in 1915, as well as her ancestral village Jhulasan in Gujarat. She was awarded the Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel Vishwa Pratibha Award by the World Gujarati Society and thus became the first person of Indian descent but without Indian citizenship to be presented the award. On October 4, 2007, Williams spoke at the American Embassy School and met with the Prime Minister of India. In 2008, Williams was designated as NASA’s Deputy Chief of the Astronaut Office, and has served in that role through her most recent mission back to space. On July 15, 2012, she launched aboard the Russian spacecraft Soyuz TMA-05M from the Baikonur Cosmodrome as a part of Expedition 32. Two days later, the spacecraft docked with the ISS for a four month stay. In September, Williams became the Commander of Expedition 33, making her the second woman to ever hold that role. During that same month, she performed her sixth spacewalk, regaining her record for most spacewalks performed by a woman. She also became the first person to do a triathlon in space, after completing the Nautica Malibu Triathlon. While the main event was held in Southern California, Williams used the ISS treadmill, stationary bike, and the Advanced Resistive Exercise Device to complete exercises that equaled swimming in microgravity. Her time was one hour, 48 minutes and 33 seconds.
As of October 2012, Williams is still in space on the International Space Station.
Image Caption: NASA astronaut Sunita Williams. Credit: NASA/Wikipedia