Mission Specialist Sunita Williams
"Wow -- that's cool!"
That's what Sunita Williams remembers thinking when, as a 5-year-old child, she watched Neil Armstrong walk on the moon. She recalls thinking then that was what she wanted to do, even if it seemed like an unrealistic dream.
Image to right: STS-116 mission specialist Sunita Williams. Credit: NASA
"I never really thought that that would happen in my life," she said. "It seemed too far out there, something that I could never achieve." That changed, though, during a visit to NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston.
Williams had earned her bachelor's degree in physical science at the U.S. Naval Academy. She was attending test pilot school to become a Navy helicopter test pilot. During a field trip, her class went to Johnson Space Center, where they met John Young, who walked on the moon during the Apollo 16 mission. She said that most of her classmates were training to become jet test pilots, which is a common steppingstone to becoming a pilot astronaut.
"It was me and a couple of other helicopter pilots sitting in the back while all the jet pilots in my TPS [Test Pilot School] class were all sitting in the front, listening to John Young talk about the shuttle and about flying to the moon," she recalls. "I remember him talking about learning how to fly a helicopter to land the lunar lander. Something just clicked in my head, and I said, 'Wow, you know, maybe there's a use for helicopter pilots if we're going to go back to the moon.' So I sort of said to myself, 'The only one who's telling me I'm not going to be an astronaut is me.'"
She earned her master's degree in engineering management at Florida Institute of Technology, and applied to become an astronaut. Her application was rejected. But, rather than give up, she applied again in 1998, and was accepted.
Her first assignment as a member of a NASA crew was not to fly into space. In fact, she was sent the other way -- down below the surface of the Atlantic Ocean as part of the NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations program. She spent nine days living and working as a member of the NEEMO 2 crew in Aquarius, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's underwater laboratory located 62 feet below the surface.
Now, Williams is at the beginning of her first spaceflight. After flying on the space shuttle's STS-116 mission to the International Space Station, she joins the station's Expedition 14 crew. When a new crew arrives aboard a Russian Soyuz in March, she'll become part of the Expedition 15 crew. Williams is scheduled to return to Earth with the STS-117 shuttle crew in the summer.
Williams said that one of her biggest jobs as a member of the space station crew will be to further human understanding of how to live and work in space. That knowledge will prepare NASA to take the next steps of exploration.
"So the space station's just a steppingstone to get us to understand space, and how to live and work in space, and then potentially get back to the moon," she said.
And, at that point, there could be some interesting new work for a helicopter pilot.
David Hitt/NASA Educational Technology Services