NASA Astronaut Sunita Williams has had a long and amazing career since graduating from the US Naval Academy in 1987. She was designated as a Basic Diving Officer and then a Naval Aviator, after which she made overseas deployments to the Mediterranean, Red Sea, and the Persian Gulf as a helicopter pilot. Suni (which most people pronounce “Sunny”), was then selected for Test Pilot School, which she later returned to as an instructor. In total, Suni has logged more than 3,000 flight hours in over 30 different aircraft.
In 1998, Williams was selected by NASA for Astronaut Candidate Training. She flew on the International Space Station for two expeditions and logged a total of 322 days in space. She holds several spaceflight records, including the record for total cumulative spacewalk time by a female astronaut of 50 hours and 40 minutes. She has been awarded the Navy Commendation Medal, Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal, Humanitarian Service Medal, and numerous other awards.
Suni spoke with CareerThoughts.com at Challenger Space Center Arizona, where she served as one of three astronaut judges for the finals of the 2013 Honeywell Fiesta Bowl Aerospace Challenge. Challenger Space Center Arizona is a nonprofit STEM education center and Smithsonian Affiliate museum serving 50,000 visitors annually, including 30,000 students.
Q. Did you always know you wanted to be an astronaut?
A. No, not at all, as a matter of fact. That’s an interesting question because there are some people in our Astronaut Office who knew from the very beginning they wanted to be astronauts. Not me. It wasn’t really until later on, when I was established in my career. In my mid-20s, when I was a test pilot, I had the opportunity to go to Johnson Space Center and meet (astronaut) John Young and understand that he landed on the moon in some type of vertical apparatus – and I was a helicopter pilot, so it seemed like it might fit. Then, I started looking at what I needed to do to become an astronaut.
Q. What did you want to be when you were little?
A. I wanted to be a veterinarian. My dad was a doctor. He’s retired now. He did a lot of research and I got to go to the lab with him when I was young, on Saturdays, and check out the monkeys. We had dogs and I did a little bit of horseback riding and I was just an animal lover. I still am. So, of course, I thought, “I want to be a vet,” and that’s what I grew up thinking that was for sure what I wanted to do. But I didn’t really get into some of my first-choice colleges.
It wound up being Columbia in New York and the Naval Academy in Maryland, and I was scared of New York (laughs), so I chose getting in the Navy and going to the Naval Academy. So, that wasn’t quite the straight path. Then, as a result of that, we sort of choose what we’re going to do in the Navy and, as my big brother joked with me, “The Navy’s not going to pay you to be a veterinarian, so you’ve got to figure out something else.”
I was a swimmer, so I thought I wanted to be a diver. I didn’t get that billet because I wasn’t high enough in my class ranking to get that, so I ended up going to Flight School. It was the time of Top Gun, so I wanted to be a jet pilot. That didn’t pan out either. I became a helicopter pilot. But I found that I really loved flying helicopters. I loved working on helicopters. I loved the crew concept and the teamwork with the crewmen in the back. I ended up helping them, changing engines and working on the aircraft, and that’s what got me interested in being a test pilot and really understanding how these vehicles worked, and that was the step that led me to being an astronaut. So, it wasn’t straight – it was quite a curvy route to get there. But that’s the message that I send home to a lot of kids: Don’t be afraid to fail, because you find out a little more about yourself when you don’t get your first choice and then you end up finding something that you will do well because you like it. When you like something, you will do it well and then you’re going to get the rewards at the end.
Q. That’s exactly what I was going to ask you about. Based on what you’ve said, it sounds like you had a lot of disappointments and a lot of plans that didn’t work out. Did you have something at the time that helped you get through those disappointments and helped you persevere even though you had to change directions several times?
A. Oh, yes. I would think the major influence in my life was, of course, my parents and my siblings, who were all very supportive. They just sort of laughed it off a little bit, like, “Oh, don’t worry about it, you’ll find something that you like to do,” and, you know, “What’s the next cool option out there?” They would always bring me back to earth by saying, “Well, what are your options?” And I’d say, “Oh, I have to fly helicopters” (groans). And they’d say, “What? Are you kidding me? That’s awesome!” Your friends and family around you probably know you a little better sometimes than you know yourself. They were a big support structure and I found that to be true flying in space, too. The support of your family and friends is really important.
Q. I can’t believe all the records that you’ve set, starting with your Navy career. You’ve set records as an astronaut and as a female astronaut.
A. Let me mention one thing about records. Records are for breaking. They are just little beacons out there that somebody else will want to do and they are measures of the accomplishments that we’ve made so far. I don’t think too much about them because I was also just in the right place at the right time.
Q. What are you doing now and what’s next on the horizon for you?
A. I am going to be staying in the Astronaut Office for a while to help the new guys who are getting ready to fly. We have a new group of astronauts that are just starting to be assigned to the International Space Station. There’s a lot involved with that – learning Russian, learning the Russian spacecraft, our international partner’s spacecraft – so I am going to be helping them for a little while. I’d love to fly again, but we’ll see what happens with that. I’d love to be involved with the next vehicle that is going to take us to low-earth orbit and beyond, maybe back to the Moon …
Q. What do you think that vehicle will be?
A. Maybe Orion, maybe one of the commercial spacecraft. I’ve got a little shuttle experience under my belt, a little Soyuz experience under my belt, and I’m hoping all of that will help me in whatever’s next. Eventually, when I grow up, I’d love to be a middle school science teacher.
Q. Can you talk a little bit about girls in careers such as the military and the astronaut program?
A. It seems like, at the Astronaut Office and at Johnson and NASA, there are a little bit more women than there were in my earlier days in the military. But, you know what? I didn’t really think twice about that, and I think that’s the approach that most ladies should go into it with. You just have to get in there and be as proficient as the guys around you and don’t even think twice about it. What I tell kids is, the helicopter didn’t know if I was a girl or a guy. The spacecraft doesn’t know. The spacesuit doesn’t know. You just have to get in there and make (the vehicle) do you what you want it to do and then you’ll be fine. Don’t highlight the fact that you’re a girl in a guy-dominated field, and then nobody looks at it in any different way. Just blend in and be a team player, be a leader when you’re called upon to be a leader, and be part of the team.