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sunita williams

Astronauts, Inspirational women

Sunita Williams To Fly To ISS On US Commercial Vehicle

27 August, 2015
NASA Astronaut Sunita Williams presenting at ISSRDC 2015

NASA Astronaut Sunita Williams presenting at ISSRDC 2015

After launching to space on both NASA’s Space Shuttle and then the Russian Soyuz rocket, Sunita (Suni) Williams will be one of the first female NASA astronaut to fly onboard the new US commercial vehicles being developed. Suni, who formerly held the record for the longest EVA (spacewalk) time by a female astronaut, was chosen along with astronaut colleagues Robert Behnken, Eric Boe and Douglas Hurley to be the first 4 NASA astronauts to fly aboard the future Boeing CST-100 and SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft.

[Update]: In August 2018 it was announced that Suni would fly alongside fellow NASA Astronaut Josh Cassada to the International Space Station (ISS) on the Boeing CST-100 Starliner first post-certification flight. The first female NASA astronaut to fly to the ISS on a US commercial crew vehicle will be NASA Astronaut Nicole Mann, alongside NASA Astronaut Eric Boe and former NASA and current Boeing Astronaut Chris Ferguson. Nicole is set to fly onboard the Boeing CST-100 Starliner’s upcoming crewed flight test. Suni’s ISS flight will follow this flight test and will be a long-duration six-month flight onboard the ISS.

Boeing and Space X were awarded contracts by NASA in September 2014 worth $4.2 billion and $6.2 billion each respectively, to develop the next generation of crew transportation to low-Earth orbit. The  2015 crew selection announcement was made by NASA Administrator Charles Bolden with the selected astronauts including Suni training with the commercial carriers.

Suni Karen

Coinciding with the announcement, Suni appeared on stage with fellow NASA astronaut Karen Nyberg to present an inspiring keynote address at the International Space Station Research & Development Conference (ISSRDC).

NASA Astronaut Sunita Williams's advice for budding astronauts! [NASA/Rocket Women]

NASA Astronaut Sunita Williams’s advice for budding astronauts! [NASA/Rocket Women]

Get to the starting line

Suni discussed career advice for aspiring astronauts, emphasizing that “Understanding how things work and being an engineer led me to become a helicopter pilot and eventually to JSC. The path doesn’t necessarily have to be straight, but don’t limit yourself to what you know. Go out and try new things. Some of those things when I was young I would’ve considered a failure, but you just need to get to the starting line.” Karen added that her older sister used to laugh and say it was cute when she said she wanted to become an astronaut. However after an internship at NASA Johnson Spaceflight Center she knew that it was the career path for her ,“and here I am”.

Understanding how things work and being an engineer led me to become a helicopter pilot and eventually to NASA. The path doesn’t necessarily have to be straight, but don’t limit yourself to what you know. Go out and try new things. – NASA Astronaut Sunita Williams

Suni Karen ISSRDC

Don’t forget the things you learned at Kindergarden

Suni’s next piece of advice was, “Don’t forget the things that you learnt at Kindergarden”. She recalled the experience of living on the ISS with “people from different cultures and backgrounds, people from all over the world”. Suni’s first mission to the ISS as part of a Soyuz crew of 3, was with an American and Russian, with her most recent with only Russian cosmonauts. She highlighted the international nature of spaceflight through her experience of training with an ESA astronaut and acting as backup crew for a Canadian & Russians. Suni described the sometimes stereotypical view, especially outside of North America that, “Canada, you think just above, is close to being American, but it’s very different.” She also sometimes forgot that her Japanese crewmember was from Japan, as he went to school in US. She described her 6 month missions on the ISS as “a marathon not a sprint”. She discussed the fact that astronauts have to prepare for any incidents that happens on the ISS when the crew are asleep, with the ISS systems and controllers waking the crew up at night if anything was happening. Before her flight she wanted to make sure she was prepared. Discussing the nuances of international work culture, her Japansese crewmate, Aki Hoshide, wanted to “just work Japanese style” Amusingly Suni finally got him to stop working by putting on the TV show Family Guy at 6pm.

Always do your best. Always clean up after yourselves. Admit you’ve made a mistake. – NASA Astronaut Karen Nyberg

Karen added that her philosophy was to “Always do your best. Always clean up after yourselves. Admit you’ve made a mistake”. She described astronauts on the ISS as being a “Jack of all trades up there, including scientists. For some science, we get the experiment rack up and running and leave it alone. Sometimes we get to talk to PIs (Principle Investigators)” which is her favourite time. She said that during her work on the ISS she was “always thinking about the people on the ground and doing her best, knowing how important that experiment is to that person”. Karen admitted that once she “changed up” the wrong igniter in combustion rack and delayed their research for a long time, feeling so awful afterwards.

She went on to describe a popular topic fielding questions. “Urine collections is a technique.” Her first time attempting this, “was a disaster, I made a mess, and used so many dry wipes than allocated. By end it was easier with a hose and I got better with it.” But she missed the first data point for the research and knew that “data means so much to them”.

“Urine collections is a technique.” Karen’s first time attempting this, “was a disaster, I made a mess, and used so many dry wipes than allocated. By end it was easier with a hose and I got better with it.” But she missed the first data point for the research and knew that “data means so much to them”.

Stop and look at the foliage every now and again

Suni’s third lesson to the audience was to “Stop and take a look at the foliage. Just take a moment out and enjoy the journey”. She depicted coming back to Earth on the Soyuz as, “Anti climatic when you’re leaving the ISS and closing the hatch, in long underwear and doing leak checks.” You think “something’s exciting’s going to happen, then undock and sit there for whole orbit with the list of tasks in front of you.” She empathetically depicted the “ride home” as spectacular. “Your face is this close to the window and us knuckleheads are close to the fire. Russians in the middle seat. I was in the left seat, starting and stopping the procedures, not wanting to mess it up.” After deorbit burn she described the crew seeing pink outside the window and the window cover dramatically burning off. “The pyros are going off, we can’t talk to the ground. Then things calm down, the parachute deploys and you’re the walnut bouncing around.” Suni hoped the commercial crew that she had recently been selected to fly with, takes a note and learns from the Russians. Suni’s advice was to enjoy the time in space and the journey, mostly enjoying the work with the scientists on the ground.

Karen added that she wished everyone on Earth had 90 mins to see the view from the cupola on the ISS. She exercised on the ARED below the cupola, for an hour every single day. “I just took for granted that I was over the tip of South America again, 240 miles up. How many things on Earth that are magnificent that we take for granted very single day.“

Astronaut Sunita Williams summed up the sole reason for her outreach activities, “We’re trying to inspire the next generation”.

Suni and Karen described that for girls to be interested in STEM and a career in space, videos from a female astronaut’s perspective were very important, even those describing how to wash your hair in space. The HAM radio project was also surprisingly impactful, taking up a tiny slice of an astronaut’s overall training. Suni stated, “We have a whole bunch of things to do, do a spacewalk, grab a visiting vehicle. The HAM radio is 5 minutes and we speak to 10 kids. Sometimes it’s super clear. We get a report afterwards on how many people were at the event and how much time the kids took to prepare. There’s 1000 kids at an event which is pretty impactful. When you’re flying around, doing science experiments there are 1 or 2 people on the ground that are watching. You start to forget there’s a whole load of other people out there and it really chocked me up. HAM radio was huge and public events. When you’re talking to a screen, you don’t know how many people are down there. It’s better for me when it’s down there. I get really nervous when there’s a lot of people and I’m on a big stage.”

She summed up the sole reason for her outreach activities, “We’re trying to inspire the next generation”.

Astronauts, Inspirational women

ESA Astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti Returns To Earth, Becoming Longest Serving Female Astronaut In Space

11 June, 2015

ESA astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti smiling following her Soyuz landing in Kazakhstan after spending 200 days in space

Astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti landed today in her Soyuz descent module on a desert steppe in Kazakhstan having broken the world record for the longest serving female astronaut in space, spending 200 days on the ISS. The record was previously held at 195 days by NASA astronaut Suni Williams. European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut became the first Italian woman in space, launching to the ISS on 23 November 2014 . Her return, along with crewmates NASA astronaut Terry Virts and Russian commander Anton Shkaplerov, was delayed from May due to an incident with the Russian Progress 59 resupply mission. Samantha wasn’t disappointed by the delay tweeting, “Looks like it’s not time to get my spacesuit ready yet… what a present! ‪#MoreTimeInSpace.”

Samantha also spoke to Hollywood actress Susan Sarandon whilst on the ISS, posting a video thanking her female friends for their support whilst she was on the ISS and thanking Susan discussing for her interest in girls in STEM and commitment to help girls find their way to Science, Technology, Engineering and Math[s], “..maybe in the future we can event work together to help sparkle that passion and interest for STEM and to show that no dream is too big”.

Maybe in the future we can work together to help sparkle that passion and interest for STEM and to show that no dream is too big. – Astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti to Hollywood actress Susan Sarandon

I had the pleasure of working with Samantha whilst I was based at ESA’s European Astronaut Centre and DLR (German Aerospace Centre). She is a true role model with the ability to speak 5 languages fluently and was the first women to be a lieutenant and fighter pilot in the Italian Air Force, accumulating over 500 hours of flying time, prior to being selected as an ESA astronaut in 2009. Samantha has been tweeting regularly during her stay aboard the International Space Station (ISS) and posting some stunning images of the Earth. Hopefully her story will encourage girls to follow her footsteps and go on to beat her record during a future mission to Mars!

Inspirational women

Happy Ada Lovelace Day!

16 October, 2012

Ada Lovelace Day (October 16th) is an event designed to raise the profile of female scientists, technologists, engineers and mathematicians. A day to bring attention and celebrate their achievements. Born in 1815, Ada Lovelace is considered to be the world’s first computer programmer! As the daughter of poet Lord Byron and Annabella Milbanke, she was encouraged by her mother as a child and taught math and science. She later worked with Charles Babbage using code-like language on the theoretical development of an “analytics engine”, similar to a computer. This was sadly never built as Ada passed away from cancer. Her notes however were used by Alan Turing in the 1940s for his work on the first modern computers. Starting in 2009, a group called Finding Ada led by Suw Charman-Anderson started a petition to call for a day of blogging about women’s achievements in STEM. Therefore every year on this day, blogs recognize powerful women the world over, paying special attention to women in the tech industry.

So this year I’ll be bringing attention and celebrating the achievements of women in the space industry, specifically those that I believe are inspiring others  and a role model for women internationally. Two women who I think should be brought to attention are Sunita Williams and Dr.Soeyon Yi.

I’ve written about Sunita previously, but Sunita Williams is not just any astronaut, she holds the record for the longest single flight in space for a women and for the longest EVA duration for a female (cumulative). EVA Video

The previous record holder, Peggy Whitson, sent her a message to congratulate her on this accomplishment. She said, “Suni – Congratulations on being the female record holder of the most EVA time. It’s an honour to hand off the record to someone as talented as you.” Peggy ended the message with “You Go Girl!!” Suni replied saying that it was a matter of circumstance, time and place. Adding that, “Anybody could be in these boots.”

Sunita previously served in the Mediterranean, Red Sea, and Persian Gulf in support of Desert Shield as a helicopter pilot. She graduated from the U.S. Naval Test Pilot School in 1993 and continued to perform test flights in a variety of military helicopters. After completing her master’s degree in Engineering Management in 1995, she was stationed on the USS Saipan, where she was selected to be a NASA astronaut. On her career path she has previously said,

“Enjoy what you’re doing, you’ll naturally do well at it, and if [the opportunity to be an astronaut] comes up, it’s just a bonus.”

Whilst onboard the ISS in 1997, Sunita completed the Boston marathon in space using the ISS treadmill. She completed the 26.2 mile race in 4 hours, 23 minutes and 10 seconds. In addition to this, whilst on the ISS this year Sunita completed the Nautica Malibu Triathlon. She ran, biked and “swam” in space simulated using a treadmill, stationary bike and strength-training machine. The swimming portion of the race in microgravity used the onboard Advanced Resistance Exercise Device (ARED) to do resistance activities and weight training.  NASA’s flight director in Mission Control congratulated Sunita for completing the triathlon and emphasised that it was “critically important to understand human physiology and how to keep you strong on orbit”.

Sunita Williams completing a triathlon in space

Sunita Williams completing a triathlon in space [Image copyright:]

Sunita has also been involved in charity work including cutting her long hair while in orbit to donate to Locks of Love, a non-profit organization that provides hairpieces to children suffering long-term hair loss due to medical issues. Sunita also went on a 5-day visit of India where she met then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, visited her ancestral village and was awarded the Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel Vishwa Pratibha Award by the World Gujarati Society. She’s a truly inspiring individual and has personally inspired me throughout my career.

The second female role model that I want to tell you about is Dr.Soyeon-Yi. Soyeon was South Korea’s first astronaut, selected from among 36,000 applicants and launched to the space station in 2008.

With a background in mechanical engineering and bio-systems, Soyeon currently serves as a senior researcher at the Korean Aerospace Research Institute (KARI) and an adjunct professor at the Korea Advances Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST). Whilst spending 10 days on the ISS, Soyeon conducted 18 scientific experiments, including an experiment that monitored the effects of microgravity on 1,000 fruit flies that she transported into space.  She has also described the experiments to educate students and the younger generations as being the most meaningful and important, her first responsibility being to support the next generation and inspire the people of Korea. Soyeon’s Soyuz capsule, which she shared with NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson and Russian cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko ,also underwent a ballistic re-entry on return to Earth. This entry at a steeper than normal angle, resulted in the capsule landing at a distance of 400 km from the intended landing site. Ballistic re-entry can expose crew members to gravitational forces exceeding 10 times that of Earth gravity as it relies solely on atmospheric drag to slow a spacecraft. The Soyuz nominal re-entry usually allows for some aerodynamic lift during re-entry, which provides a  shallower and slower descent. Luckily the crew were safe and located 20-minutes post-landing.

Soyeon also carried out the International Space University (ISU) Space Studies Program (SSP) at NASA Ames Research  Centre in 2009. I was lucky enough to meet her there whilst working as a Teaching Associate for the Physical Sciences department. She truly inspired each and every person involved in the program with her ambition and accomplishments.

Dr.Soyeon-Yi with myself and other ISU SSP09 Teaching Associates

Dr.Soyeon-Yi with myself and other ISU SSP09 Teaching Associates



Astronauts, Inspirational women

Happy Birthday to NASA Astronaut Sunita Williams!

19 September, 2012

A very Happy Birthday to NASA Astronaut Sunita Williams! Sunita’s celebrating her birthday onboard the International Space Station (ISS), which she became Commander of last week, becoming only the second female commander in ISS history. During an EVA (spacewalk) last week, Sunita also gained the world record for the longest time spent spacewalking by a female (cumulative). Overtaking 39 hours and 46 minutes. When told of her achievement by Mission Control (MCC Houston) during the spacewalk, Suni said that it was a “matter of circumstance, time and place” and that “anybody could be in these boots”. Suni took over the record from Peggy Whitson, who sent her a message during the EVA congratulating her on this accomplishment. Peggy stated that it was an honour to handover  – ending the message with You Go Girl!

Sunita also holds the world record for the most hours spent in orbit by a female. Well Done Suni!! She also completed a triathlon in space last weekend! The activity was timed to coincide with the Nautica Malibu Triathlon held in Southern California. Sunita “swam” half a mile using the strength resistance training machine onboard the ISS, cycled for 18 miles and ran for 4 miles! Creating an offworld record of 1 hour, 48 minutes and 33 seconds! Amazing! Astronauts onboard exercise for 2 hours a day using equipment including a stationary bike and treadmill. They are tethered to the machines using harnesses and straps to keep them in position. Exercise is essential for the astronauts to prevent physical deconditioning. Bone and muscle loss otherwise can occur increasingly due to the weightless environment.

Sunita is truly an inspiration to me and also to women around the world!

ISS crew celebrating the birthday of Suni’s beloved Jack Russell Terrier Gorby last week! (Image Copyright: Fragile Oasis)

P.S. Photos below are of the tool that Sunita Williams and Akihido Hoshide used to install a new electrical Main Bus Switching Unit (MBSU) to relay power on the station. A second unscheduled spacewalk was needed last week for the activity, during which the astronauts used the tools they made on the ISS themselves to fix the station.

Complete ingenuity!!

Saving the day:

The tool that fixed the ISS! [Copyright: NASA]

Tools used during the EVA [Copyright: NASA]

NASA astronaut Sunita Williams, Expedition 32 flight engineer, appears to touch the bright sun during the mission’s third session of extravehicular activity (EVA) on Sept. 5, 2012.

ISS Commander Sunita Williams during last week’s EVA (NASA)


Sunita also recently took viewers on a tour of the ISS!