Astronaut Suni Williams Describes Life Aboard Space Station

By Lea Terhune
USINFO Staff Writer

Washington – The audio signal was clear from the International Space Station (ISS). Except for a slight lag in transmission, the astronauts might have been across town. Flight Engineer Sunita “Suni” Williams, who arrived on the Space Shuttle STS-116 Discovery on December 11, 2006, for a six-month tour of duty, took time out from her duties to chat with USINFO about her experiences in orbit.

Williams joined Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Tyrurin and mission commander Michael Lopez-Alegria to continue scientific experiments and to install new equipment and upgrades to the space station.

In February, Williams logged a total of 28 hours and 17 minutes in four spacewalks, setting a record for women astronauts. But she said, “I believe there is a generation of explorers behind me who are going to shatter my record.” She foresees manned missions to the moon and even Mars in the coming years.

Inside or outside the space station, Williams says life as an ISS crew member is a busy one. “Every day is a little bit different. We get a plan by the week and there’s an amazing number of things that we are doing from science to maintenance to EVAs [Extra Vehicular Activity] -which are space walks - to robotics.”  The crew also works out every day. “That’s part of our maintaining of our bone and muscle while we’re up here in microgravity.”

Although it was difficult for her to name one activity as her favorite, dinnertime ranked high. “At the dinner table down in the Russian segment service module where we all get together at night and eat and trade stories about the day, it always ends up being a good laugh and a lot of fun.” She adds, “The camaraderie of living on a small ship and working together is probably the best part of this.”

ISS cuisine is eclectic. Williams, whose father is from India, loves Indian food. She found saag paneer and chole in her “bonus containers” which she shared with her crew mates.  “Maybe a little too hot for some” without rice, roti or raita, she said. “Hopefully I’ll be getting some samosas before too long.”

The view is “amazing.” After a month of watching the computer map that monitors the ISS location above earth, Williams now can recognize the continents herself.  “You get pretty good at geography up here because you have some time to look out the window. It’s really a nice benefit.”

She says her ISS experience has affected her outlook. “It just makes you realize a lot of things about your life,” not only about people but the planet. She said that from the space station windows, “You can see the small, little atmosphere that protects us. We are only 200 miles or so above the earth and we are already in a microgravity environment where it’s very harsh, in the vacuum of space. And it’s hot and cold out there, and you realize there’s not much protecting this planet.” She adds, “[W]e need to take care of it.”

“Looking down at the planet, looking out at the wonderful places that there are in the world to go to, you don’t really think about any of the problems that are down there … you just look at the geography and go, ‘Wow! That’s a really great place; I’d love to visit that one day.’”

“One of the really great aspects of the International Space Station is that it is international,” Williams said. “We’ve had 16 countries working on this project. It’s one of the most amazing engineering projects in the world.” Countries that were formerly at odds now join together on engineering, medical and scientific research of all types on the ISS. “I think that’s just an example … of how to work together,” she said.

The daughter of neuroanantomist Dr. Deepak Pandya and his wife, Bonnie, of Massachusetts, Williams graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy, became an engineer and a test pilot before being selected by NASA’s Astronaut Candidate School in 1998. She encourages young people to follow their dreams. “I never thought for a moment I would be an astronaut when I was growing up. Never thought it was possible,” she said. “And those ideas and those dreams ... don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do them.” She emphasized physical fitness: “Don’t take your health for granted.”

Williams sees bright prospects for future astronauts: “Many people will be up here, not only circling around our beautiful planet but going off to the moon and maybe on to Mars. The next generation has a lot to look forward to in front of them. And I wish them all good luck.”

More information about the ISS and Williams’ mission logs are available on NASA’s Web site.

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