Exclusive: 'I can't wait to watch UAE's first woman astronaut fly,' says Nasa's Sunita Williams

Ahead of her appearance at this year’s Sharjah International Book Fair, Nasa astronaut Sunita Williams talks at length about what lies ahead in space exploration


Anamika Chatterjee

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Published: Thu 2 Nov 2023, 6:00 AM

Last updated: Thu 2 Nov 2023, 8:14 AM

In 1998, National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) selected US Navy Captain Sunita Williams for a space expedition. Despite the rigorous training, it was not until 2006 that Williams set out for her first spaceflight. Having embarked on two expeditions thus far, Williams has now spent 322 days in space, making her the second woman to be on the all-time US endurance list. She has also spent 50 hours and 40 minutes cumulatively on spacewalks, and at one time, was the only woman to have spent maximum time doing it. Currently preparing for her next mission for Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft, Williams is taking some time out to attend this year’s Sharjah International Book Fair next week. In a conversation with wknd., she talks at length about the future of space travel, and why it is in good hands when it comes to the UAE.

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Edited excerpts from an interview:

You began your career with the US Navy. How did those initial years set the tone for what you went on to achieve as an astronaut?

I was a helicopter pilot in the Navy. When I was growing up, I did not think anything about that. I was able to get into the Naval Academy, and that certainly instilled in me the confidence to be able to do other things. Suddenly, you realise that you actually have those capabilities. People around you foster those capabilities and encourage you to dream bigger. The Navy, I think, allowed me to have the confidence to think of being an astronaut.

Prior to your mission in 2006, there had been the Columbia disaster, which had on board Kalpana Chawla, the first woman astronaut of Indian origin to fly to space, among others. As another woman from Indian origin who was flying to space, there had been a lot riding on you. What were your precise thoughts at the moment of the launch?

It’s sort of funny because I did go through the training (since 1998), knowing there would be a big delay because of the Columbia accident. I was training with our international partners and learning different languages, making sure I was healthy and ready to go. Honestly, there was a little thought at the back of my mind as to what if this doesn’t happen (laughs). Even while walking up to the launchpad the first time (it had to be delayed by a day), I was wondering if it would happen at all, because this was too big an event. It’s interesting that you ask this question because until you really launch, it is an experience you have never had before. People can talk about it, but until you put yourself in those shoes, it is hard to imagine what the experience would be like. But once it did, I thought it was awesome. During my second spaceflight, I felt I was ready for it. I was super focused because I knew what was going to happen. I am very fortunate that I am assigned for a third flight for Starliner that will go up next year. I think this will leave an impression on me too because this is going to be the first time people will be in the spacecraft. I am very excited about it.

You and Kalpana Chawla were also great friends.

Yes, that’s absolutely true. I know her family as well. They wanted her legacy to continue. So, I wasn’t even feeling any hesitation. She dedicated her life to space exploration and I wanted to live up to her expectations, and ensure that the next generation can follow suit, in particular Indians and Indian-Americans, who have this opportunity to be role models. Even when the Columbia accident happened, I had a lot of faith in Nasa to get to the bottom of it, to understand why it happened and make sure that we don’t have that experience ever again. We ensure that we learn from such incidents and incorporate the lessons in our future missions. I was honoured to carry the flag because that also made many people understand that space travel can be safe.

In what way, if at all, did your maiden spaceflight change the narrative on women astronauts?

I hope I furthered the idea that women can do things that men can. I talk about this a lot when I am addressing young women around the world in schools and conferences. Sometimes, transcending the barriers in your own mind is more difficult than tackling physical barriers. We think, “Oh, I am a woman, I can’t do this.” The space suit does not know whether it’s a man or a woman. Get out there, and do the job. I hope I have been able to prove that you don’t have to be extraordinarily tall or strong to get the job done. You just need to have the conviction, and make sure you know everything to get the job done.

You have run a marathon in space. You have done as many as seven spacewalks. What made you do this?

I think I was a little crazy when I did the marathon (laughs). I had run a marathon before, so I knew what it was like. I wanted to spotlight physical fitness. I was lucky to have grown up in a family where both my parents went for a jog or walk or swim. Fitness has been an integral part of our lives. Till date, my sister takes her children for hikes every weekend. I make sure I am doing something every day. The thought process behind the marathon was to show that even astronauts have to work out every day. It’s not as though you can even take a break in space. The muscle mass begins to diminish, as does your bone density. So you have to keep up. I wanted to highlight that this is a way of life, it’s a good thing, it’s fun. You can challenge yourself and see what things you can do. Honestly, the treadmill broke, so I did not have to finish the marathon (laughs). By the end of it, my crew were throwing oranges at me and giving me water, and cheering me. It also highlights the joy in doing these things, and how teamwork helps.

The spacewalks, on the other hand, were a matter of ‘Hey, what’s going to happen if we have to do some construction on the space station?’ I actually went and did spacewalks in a suit that was bigger than my normal size, because one of our medium-sized suits had a problem. There will be things that you can do despite all odds, we cannot underestimate ourselves.

Which also emphasises that you cannot take anything for granted in space. What is it about space travel that tells you something about yourself?

I would often think that I had forgotten something, but realised I cannot run home (laughs). You cannot take anything for granted, you have to make do with what you have. During one of my spacewalks, we had an issue with a vault and did not have the material up there to fix it. So Mission Control and us came up with an idea of wrapping a toothbrush with Kapton tape and using it as a tool to clean the vault. What it tells you about yourself is that there are things that are bigger than you, and it compels you to think outside the box. People who ask, “What’s the value of going to space?”, I tell them that solving problems in space is different than doing so on earth. It’s a different thought process.

Does it also teach you a thing or two about being by yourself?

Things have certainly got better, but I remember a time during my first spaceflight when we did not have a lot of communication with folks back on the ground. We would have no news. It was really beneficial because we are going to go through that again when we set out for more missions to Mars. It’s a really good question because there are periods during such flights when you are forced to look inwards — you ask yourself what your purpose is and what you can contribute to the world. It gives you peace to reflect on people back on earth, things that you miss.

Space travel is a marker of scientific potential, and what it can achieve. With space travel becoming commercialised, what are the challenges that you foresee?

It’s amazing. We have tapped into it. I am a part of a commercial crew programme. We have contracts with commercial companies to take people to lower orbit. Sometimes, people can get the feeling that it is easy and not dangerous. What we need to keep in mind is that when you are on a rocket and leave earth’s gravity, it is an unfriendly place. We cannot get complacent, and our job is to ensure that commercial companies do not get complacent and prioritise profit over safety. Companies we work with understand that.

The UAE is a young nation that has taken giant strides when it comes to space exploration. We are also about to send the first Emirati woman astronaut to space. Have you been mapping our progress?

I know them all. Hazzaa (AlMansoori) and Sultan (AlNeyadi) are both awesome, I met them at Star City. And Nora (Al Matrooshi) and Mohammad (AlMulla) are here. We were so excited when they started training with our class of astronauts. We are excited to see their class graduate; they are right in the midst of it, doing spacewalk training, robotic arm training. I remember when Sultan did his spacewalk, I thought, “We just had a UAE astronaut do a spacewalk. That is so cool.” I cannot wait to see Nora and Mohammad fly. Mohammad is a helicopter pilot, something I relate to, and Nora is just awesome.

I remember the first time I saw Nora, I emphatically said, “Welcome here.” She is a bit shy but had this big smile on her face. Then the other day, I was coming out of the simulator building for Starliner, and Mohammad and I met each other in the hallway, where there were pictures of Sultan and Hazzaa. They feel it’s their second home here, which makes me really happy.

What does the future of space travel look like?

I hope it will excite people from all over the world. I remember Star Trek from when I was a little girl. There were people from all over the world coming together to make a mission work. I hope in real life, space travel looks like that too. I hope we are doing things like Star Trek, going to different places. We have learnt so much, the International Space Station is awesome. But it’s time for us to leave lower Earth orbit. We practise going to other places by going back to the moon and learn how it is to build a lunar base. The future of space travel is more diverse, and that diversity will bring out more ideas.

You once said you were very inspired by Top Gun. That was after your first spaceflight. Now Top Gun Maverick released recently and turned out to be a bigger hit. Have you watched it?

What is particularly good about movies is they can push the boundaries and go into areas where technology is yet to go; they can just pretend that we have done all that stuff. It’s funny because those movies become reality because they compel people to think, “Oh, I want to figure this out.” We actually live up to that. I love The Martian for this reason. We have not got there yet, but it shows a lot of reality. We’ll be going to Mars; that’s the future.


Williams will be in conversation at the Sharjah International Book Fair on November 9 at the ballroom of Sharjah Expo Centre between 8 pm and 9 pm


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