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10 Quick Questions for Sunita Williams

NASA astronaut prepares to suit up for another voyage

spinner image headshot of sunita williams wearing astronaut uniform against red background
Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center

NASA astronaut Sunita Williams, 57, has spent a total of 322 days in space on two missions and was the second woman to command the International Space Station. Her latest NASA assignment is a flight test, tentatively scheduled for July, aboard the Boeing Starliner, which is part of the agency’s Commercial Crew Program.

Did you always want to be an astronaut?

That wasn’t until I was in the Navy, deployed. I had a couple hiccups here and there. I wanted to be a veterinarian because of my love of animals, but that didn’t materialize. I went into the Navy thinking this was a good way to pay for college, but I loved it. The leadership — the fellowship which carries on into every aspect of my job now — was something that clicked with me. At test pilot school, understanding, learning how helicopters work. I was like, Wow, OK, I get it. … We [test pilots] came here to Johnson Space Center, walked around, talked about flying. And I was like, Oh, maybe there's a job for me, slightly joking — but then realizing it seemed very doable to me. It didn't seem like it was so far out there. I got my master’s degree and applied a couple times, and got in.

With such a physically demanding job, how do you keep in ready-to-go shape?

I grew up as a swimmer and morphed into a runner, because I was an endurance type of swimmer. … I've started doing CrossFit. It’s not my wheelhouse, so when I pick up a bar and try to do a “clean and jerk” [weight lifting move], for example, it pushes me mentally and physically. It taps into other muscles, which are great for doing space walks. As a complement to CrossFit, a lot of the ladies I do CrossFit with, we’ve done a couple Ragnar [long-distance relay] trail runs overnight. The team-building aspect of it is pretty cool. And just for my sanity I walk my dogs a couple times a day.

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What kind of dogs?

I have two Labs that were rescued. Gunner is the brown one, which is the older one, and Rotor is the second one. My husband and I are both helicopter pilots.

I’m guessing you two are very competitive?

Oh yeah. When we were both in the Navy, we had essentially the same jobs in different squadrons. We were pilots in the squadron, looking to be department heads, but not competing directly against each other. Just sort of, How do you do this? How do you do that? … I think it was really complementary because we are very different people. While we were doing the same jobs, I learned a lot from him, and hopefully he would say the same from me.

Clearly you’re not afraid of flying. What are you afraid of?

I’m afraid of the dark at times. It’s funny. In all honesty, I joke around, but it’s true. I have an older brother and older sister, and they used to always tease me because I was afraid of scary movies and things. I was up there on the Space Station with another American and a Russian, and those two were leaving —  two other Russians came up to take their place — and the moment they left and the hatch closed, and I see their spacecraft flying away, I was like, Oh my gosh, I'm in charge of this U.S. part of the Space Station. All on me. The first night by myself in the dark, I was a little bit nervous. It’s like when you're by yourself at your house — all of a sudden you hear things. What was that? Should I be worried about that? It's a growing moment. You can be afraid. Actually, in life, you should be healthily afraid.

spinner image sunita williams talking on microphone in destiny laboratory of International Space Station
In 2012, Williams spent four months aboard the International Space Station conducting research in the orbiting laboratory.

What was the best thing about being up in space?

I was very fortunate to go for a long duration on my first flight. I got to share the experience with a lot of people because I wrote a journal every week. I didn't mean to have people respond to it, but I got questions back right away, like, “What are you eating? What are you seeing?” I think that was really cool, because it is an unbelievable experience, and to just have it for yourself is terrible. … Of course, looking out the window and thinking about the people who have come before, the explorers who have come before on our planet. Thinking about the ocean and how it makes this planet unique and how we are sustained on it, is pretty spectacular. It humbled me quite a bit, to the point that I feel like we need to take care of our planet — not just so humans can survive on it, but [to] remain like it is for all the animals and the plants. Because that’s it. When you're up there looking down, that’s it. That’s the only thing there is. There's not another thing to go land on. As far as we know, that’s home.

Are there foods you missed while in space?

I missed pizza. Just having the opportunity to have a piece of pizza. The first night I got home, I had pizza. My sister is a little bit of a gourmet, so she got this pizza with banana peppers and goat cheese. And I was like, “Whoa, whoa, whoa. I just want pepperoni.”

What else did you miss?

I had a little Jack Russell [who has since died], and I really missed him because he was just a cool dude. I could see him, but I couldn't talk to him ... I just missed taking a walk with him. On my second flight, my sister’s friend knew that I love this dog so much that she had a picture of him made into cloth, and she made a little pillow out of him. It was small enough, but really cool, because then I’d be talking to kids [from space] and I could show them something that floats. And it just happened to be something that looks like my dog.

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What are some surprising space travel takeaways?

Things that happen to you physically. Like all the calluses on your feet start to go away because you're not walking. So when you come home, your feet are soft. … One of the most interesting, most annoying things is that you lose stuff. You see a lot of pictures of astronauts looking around, looking up, because they just had something and then it flew off, and you’re looking and looking. You lose your spoon, which is the thing you really, really, really need to eat all your food. The spoon is the key thing, and it's missing, and it’s so aggravating — until a day later, you find it in the ventilation. It taught me a life lesson: Generally, when you lose things in your house, just be patient and it will show up.

What’s your favorite (nonspace) destination?

Having been in space, it makes you want to go see the whole wide world. I have a lot of things on my bucket list, particularly South America and Antarctica, that I need to go see. I'm a New Englander at heart, though. I love being up in New England. Climbing a mountain in New Hampshire or swimming in a lake in Maine or skiing is where my heart is.

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