Astronaut Sunita Williams On Historic Space Journey
India West, News Report, News Dispatches Posted: Dec 15, 2006
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - Astronaut Sunita Williams created history after she became the second woman of Indian descent to go into space as the space shuttle Discovery lit up the sky in Cape Canaveral late Dec. 9, blazing off for the first nighttime space shuttle launch in four years - the latest step in NASA's ambitious schedule to complete the international space station.
Williams follows Kalpana Chawla who died along with her six crewmates when the space shuttle Columbia disintegrated during its return to Earth in 2003.
The 41-year old astronaut of Indian and Yugoslavian descent, a new crewmember for the International Space Station, will spend six months conducting experiments onboard the orbiting outpost, fulfilling a childhood dream.
In an earlier interview with the Voice of America, Williams said she was proud of her roots. "I am half Indian and, I am sure a group of Indian people are looking forward to seeing a second Indian, person of Indian origin, flying into space. So, it's nice to know that everybody brings along with them a group of people from all over the world that get interested in space."
A letter written in Hindi by her father will be among the few personal items Williams will take into space. She considers her father Deepak Pandya, an immigrant, as her role model.
"He is an amazing role model because I think my accomplishments are relatively easy. When I think about someone leaving their home country and starting all over and becoming a success, it is amazing."
Her father said he would be praying for his daughter: "I am just going to pray that she goes up, and comes back safe. She is so close to God and to go towards God's land, which is space, is so admirable."
Discovery's crew is the greenest in eight years when it comes to spaceflight experience. Five astronauts have never flown in a shuttle before. The last time a shuttle mission had five rookies was a Columbia crew that flew in April 1998.
It has veterans commander Mark Polansky and Robert Curbeam, who will spacewalk three times. The others are pilot William Oefelein, and mission specialists Joan Higginbotham, Nicholas Patrick, Williams and the European Space Agency's Christer Fuglesang, who was the first Swede in space.
It also is among the most culturally diverse of any shuttle crew.
Besides the Swede, there are two black astronauts, an astronaut of Indian descent, a British-born mission specialist, an Alaskan and a New Jersey boy.
The Discovery mission is one leg of a three-year race to finish construction on the orbiting outpost before shuttles are retired in 2010. After Discovery's mission, 13 more shuttle flights are needed to complete the space lab.
Low clouds forced the space agency to scrub a launch attempt Dec. 7 night during a countdown that ran down to the wire. Managers decided not to try again Dec. 8 because the forecast looked even worse.
"Forty-eight hours makes a tremendous difference," launch director Mike Leinbach told the crew. Later at a news conference, he said, "Everything just clicked. Everything felt good today."
During their 12-day mission, Discovery's crew will rewire the space station, deliver an $11 million addition to the space lab, and bring home one of the space station's three crew members, German astronaut Thomas Reiter of the European Space Agency. American astronaut Sunita "Suni'' Williams will replace him, staying for six months.
The launch was the first at night since Endeavour's flight in November 2002 and only the 29th in darkness of NASA's 117 total shuttle launches.
Born in Euclid, Ohio, Williams considers Needham, Mass., her hometown. She earned a bachelor's degree in physical science at the Naval Academy and later got a master's in engineering management at the Florida Institute of Technology. She became a diving officer after getting her commission as an ensign in the Navy and later became a naval aviator. She received helicopter combat training, went to Naval Test Pilot School and then became an instructor at the school.
During a visit to the Johnson Space Center in Houston while in pilot school, a lecture by astronaut John Young piqued her interest in joining the astronaut corps. She was selected in 1998.
Williams underwent eight years of rigorous mental and physical training at the U.S. space agency, NASA, in preparation for this flight.
"I am in the pool a couple of times in a week where we do our spacewalk training. I am in simulators, hands-on."
Besides helping operate the space station's robotic arm, Williams will take the third spacewalk along with Curbeam to rewire the space lab.
NASA has described the construction mission as the most complex to date, with three space walks to rewire the station and install the new truss segment.
"It is my first time doing a space walk, first time opening the hatch and seeing the earth with just my visor. It would be amazing," Sunita said in a pre-flight interview released by NASA.
At she takes German astronaut Reiter's place as part of the three-person crew at the international space lab, she will be busy doing cutting edge research. She said she looked forward to it.
"I've always wanted to fly a long-duration mission," said Williams, whose flight is attracting interest in India because her father was born there. "A long-duration spaceflight will supply answers ... to what happens to the human body, how materials work in space."
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